The awful truth of donating a dead body to “science”

A market in all but name.
A market in all but name.
Image: Quartz/Corinne Purtill
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Donating a loved one’s body to science is for many people a comforting and altruistic act that makes meaning of a personal loss. For the many families unable to afford the cost of a funeral or cremation, it’s also a practical one, as the businesses that accept and arrange such donations typically offer to pay for cremation.

Yet loose regulation in the for-profit body-donation industry means that the final destination for many of these remains are far different than the legitimate research many donors imagine, as a Reuters investigation this week and a Quartz investigation earlier this year found.

A Reuters journalist was able to purchase the spine of a disabled young man whose impoverished parents believed that they were only donating small tissue samples from their deceased son. Quartz visited the suburban Oregon office of a dentist-turned-amateur-cryonicist who kept a refrigerator full of human heads for self-taught experiments. He’d purchased them for a few thousand dollars each from a body-donation agency whose website claims to supply “qualified research and education institutions for the purpose of advancing the design of medical implants, therapies, and surgical technologies.”

Technically, it’s illegal to sell human tissue in the US. In practice, some deep-pocketed private firms have created a commercial market for cadavers and their parts as robust as that of any other commodity.

Companies that supply donated bodies or parts for research get the bodies for free, but can charge recipients for expenses such as transport, cremation, and staff time. The businesses set those fees themselves, and they’re not published or regulated anywhere. Given these costs, commercial enterprises are often better positioned to get donor bodies than the educational or publicly funded institutions most donors envision when they agree to give to science.

“Right now, it’s the profit-driving distribution, not the benefit to humanity,” Todd Olson, a retired professor of anatomy at New York City’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells Quartz.

It’s important to point out that these for-profit body donations are entirely separate from organ donation, the tightly-controlled process in which specific organs—kidneys, lungs, heart, liver, pancreas, and intestines—are recovered from brain-dead donors and transplanted into carefully-matched recipients. Nor should body donation be barred. Legitimate medical research on donor bodies and tissues have led to advancements in everything from surgical techniques to automobile safety.

But it is also necessary for the public to understand how sketchily this industry is governed, and how few guarantees for-profit companies are required to give that the invaluable gifts they’re given are being used for the purposes donors intend.