Magazine article The Spectator

Burying the Truth

Magazine article The Spectator

Burying the Truth

Article excerpt

The return of a new series of Document, on Radio Four (Thursdays), is always to be welcomed, largely for the way it sheds some light on how poorly governed we've been in the past. Last week's programme, The Bone Harvest, was no exception. The piece of paper on which the documentary was based was in this case a list of 2,144 unnamed Scottish children and babies who, after their deaths, had had their bones secretly tested for nuclear radiation between 1959 and 1970, without their parents' permission.

The first the public knew of this was last year when an inquiry was held into what went on in Scottish hospitals during this period. In fact in England and Wales there were even more such tests - 3,500, though no similar document can be found. The only way the Scottish bereaved parents can find out if their child's bones were used for medical research is to match the date of death, the age of the child and the hospital involved with the numbered list and even that isn't reliable.

The Alder Hey hospital scandal showed that something of the sort was still happening until quite recently. The research began after the nuclear tests of the early 1950s, between 40 and 50 of them in the South Pacific and the south of America. A secret biophysics conference was held in Washington, and the man from the US Atomic Energy Commission told his fellow scientists that the supply of still-born babies had almost ceased. He asked them if they knew of a good way to carry out body snatching. A colleague suggested it was easier in poor inner-city areas or developing countries. It would have to be secret or public anxiety might grow and with it opposition to nuclear testing.

Fifteen countries, including Britain, were involved in harvesting bones, as the presenter Mike Thomson put it. Beth Taylor, spokeswoman for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, told us that strontium 90 gets into milk and bones, particularly those of babies and small children who have a milkbased diet. Its half-life of 30 years meant it would have a serious effect for 100 years. So where did they get the bones from? Coroners, it seems, would refer the scientists to pathologists who would take the bones and give them to the researchers, all without the parents knowing.

Disclosure of this research has meant that doctors are now afraid of asking the bereaved for permission to use body parts for medical research. …

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