The organ retention scandal saw a public apology from the chief medical officer last week as, yet again, the medical profession stands accused of acting with arrogance and insensitivity. Paul Stephenson reports

Another nail hammered in the coffin of the 'arrogant' medical profession? Last week saw chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson host a national summit on organ retention - a more sensitive subject than ever in the weeks approaching publication of findings from the Bristol and Alder Hey inquiries.

In what was described as 'an unprecedented meeting', parents of children whose organs had been removed without consent were brought together with representatives of the royal colleges and those involved in research and teaching using bodily parts.

Although clearly finding it hard work to keep the emotions of participants in check, through the course of what was always going to be an emotionally fraught gathering, Professor Donaldson said the summit had reinforced the need for a change in the law. He said he would recommend to ministers that they clarify the rules on consent.

Lynne Langley from the Stolen Hearts support group said that despite what had happened, 'clinicians continue to act in an arrogant manner'.

She added: 'Professionals have been treated as gods, and they are not, they are human beings.'

Michaela Willis from Bristol families support group NACOR said she hoped for a 'public apology, including [one] from the Royal College of Pathologists'.

Although offering limited apologies to the bereaved parents, the representatives of the professions gave robust defences of the use of organs. Speaking on behalf ofthe college Professor John Lilleyman said: 'I would like to start by saying how sorry I am myself and on behalf of the college.' However, he went on to say the college was concerned that the number of consented autopsies has fallen off significantly. He said: 'This is a high price to pay.'

Speaking for the Royal College of Physicians, Dr John Bennett said he rejected the 'allegation of arrogance on the part of doctors. Every time a clinician requests an autopsy he puts his reputation on the line.' He also said: 'We regret the decline of autopsy. Only 3,500 autopsies were carried out last year, a tiny number, and many educational opportunities are lost.'

On behalf of the British Cardiac Society, Professor Robert Anderson, who has undertaken research with retained hearts for over 20 years, including many from Alder Hey Hospital, said the retention of organs was absolutely crucial.

He said: 'I did not know the hearts had been taken without consent. I genuinely believe the people involved in that chain of communication were not arrogant. These people are not arrogant and not indifferent. We may have been cutting corners.'

This latter comment brought an emotional response from one of the bereaved parents in the audience, who said: 'Cutting corners, cutting children.' This response was typical of many directed against the medical profession and against Professor Donaldson as the government's representative.

The use of organs, and particularly retained organ collections, was cited as essential for the understanding of variant CJD, HIV and AIDS, and as having been used in the gathering of evidence on the victims of Dr Harold Shipman.

Robert Meadowcroft from the Parkinson's Disease Society summed up the feelings of many: 'I do strongly believe that past mistakes must not stop future research.'

Although Professor Lilleyman argued that guidance from the Royal College of Pathologists was being adhered to and that he was 'personally convinced that the problems that have occurred will not occur again', this was not accepted by many.

Speaking after the summit, Professor Donaldson said: 'Without this event we wouldn't be in the position of offering the government the advice it needs.'

He had previously told the summit: 'I apologise to you for what the NHS did. We have to change the law.'

He said the message must be 'never again'. And he promised that the forthcoming Alder Hey report followed 'a very searching inquiry'.

'Nothing is ducked in the report'.