3D Printing and the murky ethics of replicating bones


Bone scan databases offer scientists new ways to study human remains. But some worry they could be misused.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t possible for most people to use 3D technology to print authentic copies of human bones. Today, using a 3D printer and digital scans of actual bones, it is possible to create unlimited numbers of replica bones — each curve and break and tiny imperfection intact — relatively inexpensively. The technology is increasingly allowing researchers to build repositories of bone data, which they can use to improve medical procedures, map how humans have evolved, and even help show a courtroom how someone died.

But the proliferation of faux bones also poses an ethical dilemma — and one that, prior to the advent of accessible 3D printing, was mostly limited to museum collections containing skeletons of dubious provenance. Laws governing how real human remains of any kind may be obtained and used for research, after all — as well as whether individuals can buy and sell such remains — are already uneven worldwide. Add to that the new ability to traffic in digital data representing these remains, and the ethical minefield becomes infinitely more fraught. “When someone downloads these skulls and reconstructs them,” says Ericka L’Abbé, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, “it becomes their data, their property.”

Digital bone repositories already exist around the world, and while viewing those bones in a computer environment is often an option, most such repositories keep the underlying data — which could be used to print new, physical bone replicas — private. The repositories that do make the data open access typically only include human remains that are older than 100 years because of the legal issues surrounding the potential to identify a person from their remains, as well as the value of the data their remains might yield.

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