Taking Parts


The New York Times has a front-page story about the gray and black markets in human body parts used for medical training and research. "It is easier to bring a crate of heads into California than a crate of apples," complains one source. Another says supermarket beef is "better monitored than human parts."

The implication, of course, is that we need more regulation. But anyone who reads the story carefully can see that, as with the market for transplantable organs, regulation is a big part of the problem. "Selling body parts is illegal," the Times notes, "but there is no prohibition on charging for shipping and handling." It's not surprising that rules like these have created a quasi-legal market in which "the demand for bodies far outstrips the supply," and buyers (excuse me, recipients) are often unsure whether their sources are on the up and up.

It's true that legalizing the trade would not eliminate the black market completely. Some people would continue to deal in stolen bodies, just as criminals deal in stolen goods of all kinds. Bodies destined for cremation might still be diverted from time to time by mortuary employees trying to make some extra money on the side. But if explicit payments were permitted not only to middlemen but to donors' families (or to donors themselves), the legitimate supply would rise, prices would go down, and shady operators would no longer have much of an advantage over dealers who play by the rules. Naturally, this is one possibility the Times does not even mention.

NEXT: Furedi, You Magnificent Bastard, I'm Reading Your Book!

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  1. There’s an article on “The Cadaver Trade” in the March issue of Harper’s. Although it highlights some of the benefits (eg. excellent medical training), the general tone represented the idea as at least undignified and sometimes ghastly.

    Selling corneas has some history, and seems less gruesome than the practice of disassembling a cadaver and selling head, limbs, and torso separately. To me, the idea of carving a turkey seems a bit gruesome, but there’s no need to prevent people from doing it. I would much rather have my surgeon practice on several fresh torsos before sticking a laser deep into my own live flesh.

    A trader in the article also noted that the doesn’t buy the bodies, he leases them. After the surgeons finish practicing the parts are cremated and returned to the supplier. Sounds parallel to being a test subject for some live therapy; I lend my biological material to another for some compensation. Why, if done after death, is that transaction somehow creepier and therefore a target for further state interference?

  2. There is a reason the body part business isnt as well regulated as the food industry. We dont eat body parts. Whats the worst that can happen? a couple of cannibals might get sick, eating a human head that slipped by the FDA?

    BTW, this is a separate issue from organ trafficking. These bodies are used for research and medical training. Its not as if there is a huge lucrative market, like people paying upwards of $30,000 for a new kidney. Worst that can happen is your dad’s foot gets blown up by the army testing new boots.

  3. blowing up severed feet to test boots huh? That would be an unusual job.

  4. Another says supermarket beef is “better monitored than human parts.”

    Hopefully nobody is planning to eat the “human parts” but then again, parts is parts.

  5. Maybe with some open trade on parts soylent green can compete on the free market.

  6. Bodies destined for cremation might still be diverted from time to time by mortuary employees trying to make some extra money on the side

    Aren’t the parts useless at this point? I mean to say, who would even try to buy them from a mortuary employee?

  7. Not sure society is ready for the idea of selling bodies. Economic systems don’t exist in vaccuums.

    The NYT probably realized this and decided not to mention the possibility.

  8. Strangely, the current law makes your cadaver a form of property that your estate controls. You can do just about anything with it, including having it stuffed and propped up in your former spouse’s bedroom, but you can’t sell it for money for the benefit of your estate and heirs.

    The technology exist today to identify corpses and body parts down to the cellular level. Unpreserved corpses can be I.D.’d by DNA and preserved corpses could be I.D.’d by unique ratios of chemical markers mixed with the preservatives. Safely extending full property rights to ones own remains would be a trivial technical and legal issue.

  9. I have a left nut if anyone wants it.
    His name’s Joe.
    Ha ha.
    I’m outta here.

  10. “Safely extending full property rights to ones own remains would be a trivial technical and legal issue.”

    This is true. But it’s a ghastly social issue. Not sure we’re ready for that.

  11. Ghastly? It’s stupid is what it is.

    Why can my wife sell my comic collection if I die, but not my corneas? If you think it’s ghastly, then don’t buy ’em.

    Until it’s legal, it’s all going in the ground. The corneas, etc., not the comics…

  12. Jack:

    And we never will be ready for organ sales if the government keeps on trucking with it’s absurd behavior. Just look to the “War on Drugs” as an example. The czar keeps saying drugs are bad, so the press repeats drugs are bad, parents tell children drugs are bad, and everybody believes drugs are bad. As long as the gov’t keeps preaching “selling organs is ghastly!”, well, it’ll run right own down the line.

    However if the government just got the hell out of the way, things could change. You are right that most of American society probably isn’t ready for selling body parts in the corner store, but that isn’t really a problem. At first, because of how skeptical people would be of the practice, it would only be offered at a select few places. Then acceptance would start to grow, and we would gradully work the practice into an everyday occurance that no longer seemed like such a big deal.

    So the argument of “I’m not sure society is ready for this” really isn’t valid. Society doesn’t have to be ready, immediately, in order for the government to get the hell out of the way. If that were the case then we would never advance at all.

  13. I don’t see what the big deal is about selling of your body parts after you are dead. Its not as if when I die, I still need my body. Its just an empty shell.

  14. what about getting money now, in exchange for promising my organs when i die? or how bout securing a loan against the value of my organs. (to be collected at death, if i stop paying the loan.)

  15. The big deal about selling your organs is the possibility someone may sell yours before you are dead, and you will be dead once they are removed. I know its absurd in the 1st world that this could happen for a couple bucks, but there are places where a relatively small amount of money goes a long way. A laotian friend tells me people go to her (old) country to buy kidneys from the poor. Having no pesky morals, I see nothing wrong with that. But that is one opposing argument on this issue.

  16. “Not sure society is ready for the idea of selling bodies. Economic systems don’t exist in vaccuums.”

    That argument is bunk. The opposition of ignorant people doesn’t render something a bad idea. I agree 100% with Sullum, Goonfood, Angie, heh2k, Trey, et al.

  17. I feel compelled to point out that was a different “Jack” who posted earlier. This Jack fully supports deregulating the sale of body parts.

  18. You obviously don’t know jack.

  19. > Its not as if there is a huge lucrative market,

  20. Check out 2003’s Dirty Pretty Things, which comes out on DVD later this month. It’s an intriguing (and creepy) look into London’s underground organ market.

    It certainly makes you wish the whole business was legal and above board, where it could be a little less unseemly and a lot more sanitary.

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