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5 things to know before donating your body to science

Editor's Note: This story was included as an excerpt in WBUR's weekly health newsletter, CommonHealth. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, sign up here.


There are some questions humans may never truly answer — like, what happens to us after we die?

But for my grandparents, the question of what would happen to their bodies was easy: They would be donated to science, specifically to the University of California, Los Angeles, which wasn’t far from their home. They weren’t sentimental, and liked the idea they could be helpful to someone else.

Then, in 2004, scandal engulfed the body donor program at UCLA. Its director was accused of illegally stealing and selling body parts, and later pleaded guilty.

Undeterred, my grandparents transferred their body donation plans to another university.

So, my grandparents were on my mind last June, when I learned of allegations that the morgue manager at Harvard University's medical school had been dismembering donated bodies, and stealing and selling their parts — all seemingly without raising suspicion from anyone at the Ivy League institution.

WBUR reporter Ally Jarmanning covered the story, and she delved deeper into what happened at Harvard and some of the questions the allegations raised in the latest season of WBUR's podcast Last Seen, called "Postmortem." It’s well worth a listen.

After I heard Ally’s reporting, I had lingering questions about body donation programs, so she helped me put together a list of five things to know before donating your body to science.

1. Medical schools still need real bodies

Although technology continues to get better, it seems mannequins and virtual programs just don’t cut it.

“Everyone I spoke to stressed the importance of learning on real bodies,” Ally told me. “Learning on a human can show the complexity and variation in how our bodies function.”

One reason for this is each individual is just a little different from the next. I find this somewhat comforting — we really are unique!

And so far, doctors told Ally, there’s no real substitute for practicing on a human body.

“We want our surgeons to know what it’s like to cut through skin, fat and muscle, and navigate our ligaments and tendons — before they do it on a living patient,” Ally said.

Interestingly, ethical concerns can still arise when using virtual programs or 3D models. In the 1990s, researchers working on a project for the National Library of Medicine used the body of an executed Texas prisoner to create a digital anatomy model.

The prisoner, Joseph Paul Jernigan, had donated his body for study, “but likely did not know that it would be used as an enduring digital model for anatomy,” Ally explained. “This raises a lot of questions about consent that anatomists and ethicists are still grappling with today.”

2. Working with the dead can provide lessons about the living

This may be the most important reason to use a human body from a donor. Beyond anatomy, it teaches people how to treat the living.

“Many medical schools call donor bodies students’ ‘first patient’ or ‘silent mentor,’ " Ally said. “Most programs now expect students to treat the body donor like they would a patient. They insist on practices like only uncovering the part of the body the students are working on.”

3. 'Donating your body to science' can mean different things

The idea of donating your body for medical research may not mean what you imagine — a lot can depend on the context. Some bodies and body parts have ended up on display in museums, as Ally learned, or been the basis for digital models, as previously mentioned. Some have been acquired by collectors. It is unclear whether the donors understood this could be a possible outcome.

“You can donate to a medical school, like Harvard,” Ally told me. “But there are also tons of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that accept donated bodies, usually in exchange for a free cremation.”

These businesses, often called “body brokers,” sell bodies for a number of uses, including professional medical training programs. For a more detailed look at body brokers, Ally recommends checking out Reuters’ investigation into the industry.

4. It’s hard to evaluate the quality of body donor programs

“As the Harvard case shows, we just don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” Ally said.

But there are some things you can do to vet body donation programs, sometimes called willed body programs.

First, Ally recommends talking to the people in charge, and asking detailed questions about how they operate: Do the donor bodies stay with the school, or are they loaned or sent out to other facilities? Will the bodies be used solely for student learning or are they used for other research, too?

Second, Ally recommends reviewing any forms the program asks donors to sign. Look out for specific information they provide about how a body can be used and what the program will do. Are there clear descriptions? Does the form limit how the body will be used, or does it give the business or medical school broad latitude?

“More anatomists now want these forms to be more detailed with opportunities for potential donors to fully consent to each aspect of the donation process,” Ally said.

5. There’s little oversight of this industry

There are few rules and regulations governing donated body programs, Ally told me. For example, in Massachusetts, no one is tasked with inspecting medical school morgues, and the state doesn’t oversee these programs.

“Each school is making its own rules and standards,” Ally said. “Sometimes, it’s even up to the individual anatomy professor to create ethical standards. One anatomy professor I spoke to bemoaned the fact that some professors still think it’s OK for students to store their scalpel blade in the donor’s thigh, for safekeeping. He was horrified by that."

The bottom line is there's a wide range in how different programs and individuals define what is acceptable. And it doesn't get much better at the federal level.

“There's much better tracing for a head of lettuce than there is for a human head,” FBI agent Paul Micah Johnson told Ally.

Johnson is an expert in body broker cases, and he explained that the government can track a head of lettuce all the way back to the farm where it was grown, including where it stopped on its way to the supermarket. “Not so, for a human body,” Ally said. “There’s no registry, no national database, no rules or regulations.”

Companies and institutions like medical schools have a lot of freedom to use donated bodies the way they want, as long as no body parts are being transplanted into a living person, Ally said. This was one of the most surprising things she learned while doing this reporting.

“This whole podcast focused on this question of how we should treat human bodies and who gets to make those decisions,” Ally said. “At least when it comes to government regulation, bodies aren’t treated very well.”

Related:

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Elisabeth Harrison Managing Editor For News Content
Elisabeth Harrison is WBUR’s managing editor for news content with a focus on business, health and science coverage.

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