Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records

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Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records

Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records

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But one line he can’t quite draw is whether he’s dealing with pieces or people: “These pieces, these are human beings. And they should be treated with the utmost respect and dignity as possible,” he says. “So within the context of the collection, we treat these pieces with honour, with dignity, with respect in terms of how we display them.” The dignified treatment of a person’s remains does not, however, extend to reburial: “I don’t believe in destroying pieces of history.” The most famous of them were Burke and Hare, whose side-line in murdering tenants of their Edinburgh boarding house and selling their bodies to the university’s anatomy department ushered in the UK’s Anatomy Act of 1832, which limited body-snatching by allowing doctors to help themselves to unclaimed corpses in morgues and hospitals. It would be almost impossible to identify precisely where the medical bones, scrubbed of their DNA and identity, came from. And yet, almost every culture has some form of reverential funeral practice. While there is a genuine benefit to the anatomical study of real human bones, so long as there are willed donation programmes, can that benefit justify recycling the ones produced in not-so-ancient injustices? These bones fell out of use, but not out of existence – and are often inherited by families when a doctor dies. People literally find skeletons in their closets – and that’s where Ferry comes in. He facilitates their profitable re-entry into the medical teaching sphere, where he thinks they might still benefit humanity, with their unique variations that anatomical models can’t always replicate. The bones are here whether we like it or not, he reasons, so we might as well put them to good use. Redman sees medical osteology as an extension of this wider tradition, since the remains of marginalised individuals were collected with such virulence that many of them made it into the general bone trade. “There’s no ethical way to buy and sell human remains,” he says. “Because there’s a clear link between the legacy of this and racism and scientific racism, and colonialism.”

But an emphasis on the history and even value of human remains obscures the person they were. “The problem is in this whole discussion, we’ve forgotten who the people were,” says Scott Carney. “When we turn a human into a commodity, that’s where you start getting enormous ethical lapses … And Jon is on the wrong side of that equation.” ‘The next great bone flood’ In 1985, the industry finally collapsed when India banned the trade of human remains after a bone trader was arrested for exporting 1,500 child skeletons. More skeletons will be found in people’s closets; Ferry anticipates what he excitedly calls “the next great bone flood”, as the generation of doctors who bought their bone boxes at the industry’s height in the 1960s and 70s die. Some of them will re-enter the market; but as awareness grows, perhaps some of them will finally be laid to rest.Still, in a few years’ time, Ferry would prefer to pivot away from sales to a museum, where anyone could see his historical collection, which would be supported by a gift shop. JonsBones has already launched its first jewellery line: sterling silver vertebrae curving around a hoop earring, tiny skulls covering a ring. For now though, he doesn’t mind the criticism, as long as it facilitates a conversation.

I’m doing this because I genuinely believe this is the best thing we can do for these pieces right now,” he says. “We really are doing our best to treat these pieces with respect, dignity and then preserve them for future generations.”

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