Donating Bodies to Science Carries Risks and Benefits
Statistically, just over 50% of drivers sign up for this dotted line, helping to reduce the list of over 100,000 people waiting for organ transplants at any given time. The federal government highly regulates the process, and the parties involved follow a specific set of rules at each stage.
Another type of donation also helps others and advances science, although you cannot register for it with the DMV. This much less regulated type of donation, commonly known as body donation, is under the radar. Although the outcome is usually favorable, potential donors and their families must understand what they are signing up for when giving consent.
Unfortunately, the body donation market varies significantly from state to state and organization to organization without federal oversight. A recent case of head theft in Denver, where police said earlier this month that someone broke into a truck and stole a box labeled “liberated human specimen” containing human heads used in research, is illustrative only.
“It’s kind of like an adventure in the Wild West,” says Thomas H. Champney, Ph.D., a professor of cell biology at the University of Miami. “Maybe a family business with a little oversight.”
This does not mean that body donation does not serve a good cause or does not lead to meaningful progress in the medical world. Body donors impact healthcare, says Angela MacArthur, director of the Anatomy Legacy Program at the University of Minnesota.
“I want people to know that we are all beneficiaries of this gift and that it is a huge request to part with the body of a loved one for research,” she says. “We need to educate these young doctors, and if that can help, that’s a consolation,” she says. “It makes sense to think that my parents still contribute to society, even after death.”
However, it is best to proceed with body donation with as much information about the process as possible.
As the variety of surgical procedures in medicine has evolved, the number of body and tissue donors has increased significantly. About 20 years ago, there was a growing need for donations of human bodies that doctors and surgeons could use in their practice.
“This led to a new line of business selling bodies,” Champney explains. “Essentially, they find people close to death – or their loved ones – and share the idea of body donation. A grandmother dies, for example, and no one knows what to do with her body. These companies offer options.”
The use may even include continuing education for current healthcare professionals.
“These are working professionals, such as paramedics, doctors, and nurses, who hone their skills in an environment where the consequences are not as severe as when practiced on a living person,” MacArthur says.
All this is good, but there are often gaps in understanding what happens when the body is in the hands of a broker. But all too often, your family may receive only partial ashes from one part of the body or another. Ostrenko admits that although she is happy with her parent’s decision, it was hard to wait for their remains. “It took over a year to get my father’s ashes,” she says, “and I still don’t have the ashes of my mother, who passed away last year.”
However, Ostrenko is optimistic about the expectation. “We have a two-part ceremony,” she says. “Celebration of life and then scatter the ashes when they return.”
Other issues include a lack of information about how it will use the body. The broker could dismember the body, sending one part to medical school and the other to a research facility. “Body mediators need to point this out in consent, so people don’t feel offended,” MacArthur says.
“Buying a body is illegal,” Champney says, “but they can charge their end customers astronomical shipping costs, making a profit.”
The body selling business also has several unethical players who prey on low-income donors by promising cremation services in exchange for a body. They advertise in hospices, nursing homes, and even low-income nursing homes.
Scary stories about unscrupulous brokers are just awful.
A New Orleans widow followed her late husband’s desire to donate her body to science. But instead of being used for research, his body was autopsied in October in front of a live audience of people who paid up to $500 to attend an event called the Oddities and Curiosities Exhibition in Portland, Oregon.
In 2014, the FBI raided the for-profit Biological Resources Center, where agents found a creepy scene with mismatched limbs. and other body parts that sound like a scene from a cheap horror movie. The company accepted donations from individuals with the promise that that would use them in scientific research.
While this may seem like a good deal, you need to know what will happen next to your body or your loved one.
Keep your eyes open.
If you or a loved one is considering donating a body, you should pay attention to the precautions and warning signs.
“When reviewing the consent, make sure it states the use of the donation and who the potential users will be,” MacArthur says.
At the other end of the spectrum, be attentive to any problems.
“If the documents are of poor quality – for example, with typos – you will want to see what happens behind closed doors.”A simple Google search can be helpful when looking for positive or negative reviews about a company.“Check their profit status,” MacArthur says. “If it’s for profit, that’s fine, but they have to disclose it.”
And MacArthur offers a little insight into how the organization handles donated bodies. Look at blood tests for infectious diseases, preservation, disarticulation, and the like,” she says. “There must be full disclosure of what will happen to the body.”Initial attempts are being made to regulate the body donation industry at the federal level uniformly, but they have not been successful.
“For ten years, I have been pushing for a real certification process so that brokers can claim they meet certain standards or levels of standards, but it has been difficult to succeed,” Champney says.
When that day comes, you are navigating; the body donation process will be more accessible and transparent. But until then, it’s best to be a little skeptical and do your homework before committing. “Recognize that some states regulate better than others,” says MacArthur, “and look for well-written, easy-to-understand contracts that reveal the important details you need.”