The commercialisation of the body beyond death: Inside the unregulated world of donating your body to ‘science’ in the US


Clelia Frondaroli | Head of Comment

Cremations or funerals? An open casket or a wake? There’s a lot to contemplate about life after death however one thing is certain: it is not cheap to die. Yet, what happens if you have no choice but to pick the cheapest option? What if the cheapest option means surrendering your body to science?

It is clear, from both historical and modern accounts that the study of the human body has helped advance medical research exponentially. Beginning in the 14th century in Western Europe, anatomical dissections of the body allowed students to understand variations in the human anatomy and provided the ideal training ground to practise surgical procedures that are still widely used by medical practitioners today. Without the physical study of the human body, medicine would not be at the standard it is now and it is important that the people who chose to donate their bodies to science are recognised. However, this piece is not about denying the benefits of body donations but rather the dangers of an unregulated body donation market (such as the one in the US) and the rise of the body trade- where body parts of donors are bought, sold and shipped both domestically and internationally for profit.

In 2021, a video emerged online of a live dissection occurring in a hotel ballroom in Oregon. The incident revealed that members of the public had paid up to $500 per ticket for the entertainment of attending the live dissection of David Saunders, whose body his widow had attempted to donate for medical research. The company she had donated his body to, Med Ed Labs, had leased him to Death Science for the event- an organisation which states it hosts events for ‘educational purposes’ to paying members of the general public. His widow had not been consulted and assumed he had gone to medical students until she learnt of the incident online. Yet, occurrences such as this one were not (and still aren’t) strictly illegal. Laws surrounding body donations in the US are so loosely regulated that almost anyone is able to legally sell or buy body parts and, in a trade where a leg can go for £1,100 and a cadaver reaches amounts surpassing £4,000, it is not surprising that the commerce of body parts takes place.

This is not an isolated incident either. Marie Gallegos found that her husband’s head had been sold to dentistry students in Israel and the urn of ashes that had been shipped back to her were only a fraction of his. In 2016, a Reuters investigation discovered that over twenty bodies had been sold to the US military as ‘blast dummies’ without the explicit consent of their families, where they were used to examine the effects of various explosives on the human body. In a country where funeral costs are increasingly unaffordable, companies specialising in the commerce of bodies offer grieving families free cremations in return for donating their loved ones’ bodies to ‘advance medical science’, meaning that those with lower incomes are the ones exploited.

This is the nature of body brokers in the US, where free and generous donations of loved ones can command steep profits for the companies that go on to sell them internationally. In the same investigation by Reuters, they found that in three years alone one broker earned over $12.5 million dollars in profit from the body parts business. Lack of regulation also has meant body parts may be stored in unsanitary and unsafe conditions; in a storage facility (owned by Bio Care) officials found over 127 body parts laying unrefrigerated. This, paired with the potential spread of infectious diseases (as many donated bodies that end up within the body brokering business are rejected by medical schools for having serious illnesses), speaks of heightened risk associated with the trade of bodies as ‘raw’ materials.

This clearly shows that something within the US body donation system needs to change. It is vital that laws surrounding the sale of cadavers must be tightened and regulated as well as the people who are legally allowed to make these sales. Whilst it is highly illegal to engage in the trade of heart or kidney organs for transplant, there is no reason why this should not also apply to body parts. The trade in body parts, especially one which operates without the consent of next of kin and exploits those who have no other options but to consent to donation, is one that crosses ethical and moral boundaries and should be stopped.

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.


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