Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 11:59 UK

Who decides who owns your body?

By Rob Cave
Law in Action

Steve Blum's son Christopher was buried last November but he did not go to the funeral.

Christopher Blum
Christopher Blum's body was kept in a North London mortuary for 21 years

Mr Blum, who has always disputed the the pathologists' finding of cot death as the cause of four-month-old Christopher's death, wanted his son to remain in the North London mortuary where he had lain for 21 years until he could have the inquest he feels his son deserves.

"We were not prepared to go along in a funeral procession with Enfield Council, or any other outside official, heading a forced funeral," he told BBC Radio 4's Law In Action.

"Morally and legally we have to believe that he is our property - any parent or next of kin would think the body would belong to them."

But Enfield Council, invoking its rights under the law governing the registration of births and deaths, held a funeral for Christopher without his family present.

The Council told Law In Action that it felt it was the decent thing to do after so many years.

It raises the vexed question, who owns your body, you or the state?

It is a curious question, but the answer to it matters much more than you think.

Ownership dilemma

In fact, no-one owns your body nor any part of it - not you, nor the doctors and scientists who, thanks to leaps in scientific research, are increasingly finding value in your flesh and blood.

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And the consequences of the lack of a definition of ownership of the body can have heart-wrenching consequences for those caught in the thorniest of moral dilemmas.

How Mr Blum and Enfield Council dealt with the dilemma posed by Christopher's body is typical of how the question, who owns the body, is answered when it arises.

While no-one owns the body, we and the state have certain rights and responsibilities over it, enshrined in different bits of legislation.

Donor wrangle

However, a ruling earlier this year from the Court of Appeal may have finally delivered an answer to this question, at least under common law.

In 2003, a group of six men suffering from cancer had their sperm stored by medical staff in the event that their treatment left them sterile.

Coffin Generic
Nobody owns your body in law

But the freezers holding the sperm failed, potentially ending their future chances of starting a family.

A claim for personal injury or loss of property failed, but their argument prevailed in the Court of Appeal earlier this year.

The sperm was the men's property and they had grounds for compensation for that loss.

The decision is significant according to Chris Thorne, of Foot Anstey, the men's solicitor.

"The court said it was intended to apply this principle to any part of the body whether it be for the use of the person it belonged to or use for another.

He added: "Where that will lead us in the future is not entirely clear, the court was quite clear it should apply to other products from the body which might be used by third parties and not by the person it came from so there's a wide spectrum of situations where this might now apply."

Law In Action was broadcast on Tuesday 23 June 2009 at 1600 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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