Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 08:56 GMT
Bristol inquiry to look into child organ removal
At least 29 babies died following heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary
The public inquiry into a child heart operation scandal is likely to look into allegations that a hospital routinely removing organs from the bodies of dead children without their parents' consent.
The hospital says it is standard practice to remove organs for post-mortems and consent is not a legal requirement.
Mr Dobson said reports of organ removals were "very, very disturbing" and were an example of how things had gone "badly wrong" at the hospital.
However, he admitted the situation relating to organ removal needed clarification.
Bristol Royal Infirmary's paediatric heart surgery unit was the subject of the longest ever inquiry by the General Medical Council (GMC) last year.
The public inquiry was ordered after parents protested that the GMC hearing had not been far-reaching enough.
The inquiry will look at how the problems arose and will study how the system as a whole allowed the situation to happen.
North Devon MP Nick Harvey has called for a Commons debate on the issue of organ removals.
But Margaret Beckett, leader of the Commons said she could not promise time would be set aside for one.
The Bristol Childrens' Heart Action Group, a parents' campaign group, says the hospital removed and retained the hearts of at least 170 hearts from children who died in operations over a 12-year period.
The hospital admits up to 180 hearts may have been removed.
It added that it had been in discussions about the issue for months and was planning to contact affected parents who were not members of big campaign groups.
But the Action Group said it had only just learnt that the organs were being removed "systematically".
Solicitor Mervyn Fudge, who advises the Action Group, said: "We understand it is or has been, accepted practice in the NHS to remove tissue or organs during the post mortem for research purposes without obtaining express consent.
"This is not just a matter for Bristol, we understand this is happening nationwide."
North Devon Liberal Democratic MP Nick Harvey called the practice "sickening" and said it only added to the distress of the Bristol parents.
He is planning to table a Commons question to Health Secretary Frank Dobson asking him to investigate how widespread the practice is.
He also wants to know whether guidance needs to be published telling hospitals to explain to relatives and parents about the post-mortem process and asking them to get their permission for organ removal.
The Department of Health (DoH) said that there were no laws on getting consent from families for post-mortems or on who owns dead bodies or body parts.
It added that there was no existing guidance on retaining body organs for post-mortem study.
The coroner ordered a post-mortem in about 80% of the Bristol cases.
Normally organs are returned to the body shortly after post-mortems are carried out, but sometimes they are retained for further tests.
The Royal College of Pathologists is said to be discussing changes to its guidelines on the removal of organs at post-mortem with the Coroners' Society.
"This is a very difficult and sensitive situation and we understand how worrying it must be for the parents of the Bristol children, who have borne so much distress already in recent years," said a DoH statement.