UK Report Finds Hospital Plundered Babies' Bodies For Organs

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - Britain reeled Tuesday at the news that a children's hospital had systematically stripped thousands of organs from dead children during post-mortems, without their parents' permission or knowledge.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn announced that the police would investigate the matter, and the pathologist at the center of the scandal has been reported to the medical regulatory body, the General Medical Council.

Milburn was speaking as the government published a 700-page report that found that between 1988 and 1995 the Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool had taken hearts, kidneys and other organs from children who died there, as well as the whole bodies of miscarried and stillborn babies.

In some cases, whole heads were removed and retained.

Bereaved parents who thought they were burying their children's bodies had no reason to believe organs had been removed. They were deceived and their wishes ignored, the scathing report said.

Making it worse, the vast majority of removed organs were never used in medical research, but stored in a cellar. Milburn said affected parents did not even have the comfort of knowing the organs had been used in a way that may have helped other children.

Professor Dick van Velzen, an expert in "cot death syndrome" who was a pathologist at the hospital during the period under review, may face criminal charges. He is currently in the Netherlands, having also worked in Canada.

Milburn, who called the report "grotesque," told the House of Commons Van Velzen had lied to parents, doctors and hospital administrators. He had also allegedly stolen and falsified hospital records.

The report accused hospital managers of failing to prevent Van Velzen's "worst excesses," and said opportunities to investigate his behavior and discipline him were missed. Four senior staff members have been suspended.

In a previous interview, Van Velzen sought to defend the activities by saying his department lacked the resources to complete autopsies immediately, and were keeping the organs for later investigation.

Milburn told lawmakers the pathologist was guilty of the "unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child. He ignored parents wishes, even when they
told him specifically that they did not want a full postmortem, let alone the retention of any of their child's organs.

"Professor Van Velzen lied to parents. He lied to other doctors, lied to hospital managers. He stole medical records. He falsified statistics and reports, and he encouraged other staff to do the same."

Milburn said he should never be allowed to practice in Britain again.

But the scandal reaches other hospitals too. In a separate report Tuesday, the chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, found that hearts, brains, lungs and other organs were still being held by hospitals across the country, in some cases without relatives' consent.

At some hospitals, parents already upset by their loss were unaware when signing a consent form that referred to "tissue" removal that they were actually giving the go-ahead for the hospitals to remove whole organs.

Milburn said Monday parents had to be made fully aware of what they were being asked to approve.

"For trust to thrive there has to be informed consent - not a tick-in-the-box consent regime, but consent that is based on discussion and dialogue, where consent is actively sought and positively given."

Milburn has announced an overhaul of the National Health Service, which is already facing a crisis of confidence over underfunding, staffing shortages, long waiting lists and other ethical scandals.

The government will also introduce laws to tighten the rules surrounding medical consent.

Many affected parents - who were given access to the report several hours before it was released to the public late Tuesday - are reportedly planning to take legal action against the Liverpool hospital.

Help lines have been set up to deal with calls from distressed relatives.

Reacting to the report, the British Medical Association welcomed its recommendations to amend existing laws to prevent abuse.

"The trend to much greater frankness with patients is not new and doctors are genuinely committed to providing patients with as much information as they want to receive," said Dr. Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee.

"Today's report makes painful reading for doctors as well as the public, but the medical profession as a whole treasures the relationship of trust between doctor and patient and will continue to work to retain that trust," he added.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow