Working with human remains requires a great deal of consideration and respect for the dead. Forensic anthropologists have to think about the ethics of our use of human remains for scientific purposes. How do we conduct casework in the most respectable manner possible? While there are a wide range of ethical considerations to consider when contemplating a career in forensic anthropology, this chapter will focus on two major categories: working with human remains and acting as an expert within the medicolegal system.
Forensic anthropologists work with human remains in a number of contexts, including casework, excavation, research, and teaching. When working with human remains, it is always important to use proper handling techniques. To prevent damage to skeletal remains, bones should be handled over padded surfaces. Skulls should never be picked up by placing fingers in the eye orbits, foramen magnum (hole at the base of the skull for entry of the spinal cord), or through the zygomatic arches (cheekbones). Human remains, whether related to casework, fieldwork, donated skeletal collections, or research, were once living human beings. It is important to always bear in mind that work with remains should be ingrained with respect for the individual and their relatives. In addition to fieldwork, casework, and teaching, anthropologists are often invited to work with remains that come from a bioarchaeological context or from a human rights violation. While this discussion of ethics is not comprehensive, two case examples will be provided below in which an anthropologist must consider the ethical standards outlined above.
Forensic anthropologists may also be called to participate in criminal investigations involving human rights violations. Anthropological investigations may include assistance with identifications, determination of the number of victims, and trauma analyses. In this role, forensic anthropologists play an integral part in promoting human rights, preventing future human rights violations, and providing the evidence necessary to prosecute those responsible for past events. A few ethical considerations for the forensic anthropologist involved in human rights violations include the use of appropriate standards of identification, presenting reliable and unbiased testimony, and maintaining preservation of evidence. For a more comprehensive history of forensic anthropological contributions to human rights violations investigations, see Ubelaker 2018.
In addition to the ethical considerations involved in working with human skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists must abide by ethical standards when they act as experts within the medicolegal system. The role of the forensic anthropologist within the medicolegal system is primarily to provide information to the medical examiner or coroner that will aid in the identification process or determination of cause and manner of death. Forensic anthropologists also may be called to testify in a court of law. In this capacity, forensic anthropologists should always abide by a series of ethical guidelines that pertain to their interpretation, presentation, and preservation of evidence used in criminal investigations. First and foremost, practitioners should never misrepresent their training or education. When appropriate, outside opinions and assistance in casework should be requested (e.g., consulting a radiologist for radiological examinations or odontologist for dental exams). The best interest of the decedent should always take precedence. All casework should be conducted in an unbiased way, and financial compensation should never be accepted as it can act as an incentive to take a biased stance regarding casework. All anthropological findings should be kept confidential, and release of information is best done by the medical examiner or coroner. Finally, while upholding personal ethical standards, forensic anthropologists are also expected to report any perceived ethical violations committed by their peers.
Ethical standards for the field of forensic anthropology are outlined by the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science, administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). OSAC and NIST recently began an initiative to develop standards that would strengthen the practice of forensic science both in the United States and internationally. OSAC’s main objective is to “strengthen the nation’s use of forensic science by facilitating the development of technically sound forensic science standards and by promoting the adoption of those standards by the forensic science community” (NIST n.d.). Additionally, OSAC promotes the establishment of best practices and other guidelines to ensure that forensic science findings and their presentation are reliable and reproducible (NIST 2023).