To Whom Should You Sell Your Body? Ask Harvard!


Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge reports on a fascinating study of cadaver sales. As I reported in March, doctors and ethicists are very concerned about entrepreneurial organizations that obtain cadavers and sell them to researchers. Traditionally, university medical programs have accepted donations and distributed them. Both university medical programs and nonprofit startups have been hit by scandals over the past five years, and neither is legally permitted to compensate donors' families beyond the cost of transporting and cremating the body.

Anteby and Hyman compared 80 voluntary donations and 120 specimen shipping invoices from a pair of Maryland-based organizations: one academic-housed program and a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture. In return for body donations, each organization offered comparable levels of financial assistance covering transportation and cremation costs and returning the ashes when requested.

In their research Anteby and Hyman discovered that there was no noticeable difference between the programs in terms of specimens' sex, marital status, educational levels, and estimated incomes. However, donors to the entrepreneurial venture were younger (65 years old on average, vs. 76 years old) and more likely to have died of cancer (71 percent vs. 21 percent).

While it could be assumed that the entrepreneurial venture would be more likely to engage in predatory behavior to obtain donations, it did not attract less educated or less affluent donors, the researchers observe in the paper.

I can't be certain that the Maryland outfit they're talking about is the Anatomy Gifts Registry, which I toured for the March article. But the men running AGR have every incentive to address the concerns of skittish families. They've figured out what people don't want to know–such as how, exactly, the body would be dismembered and packaged–and what they do, such as very specific tracking information to ensure that the remains they receive later actually belong to their relatives.

Still, we're going to continue seeing scandals until the body trade is more transparent and the transactions more traceable. And we're not going to see that transformation for a very long time, because it's in no nonprofit's or university's interest to inform people that their bodies are worth tens of thousands of dollars their relatives will never see.

Hat Tip: David Kirby

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  1. The inevitable Monty Python transcript will be posted in 3, 2, 1…

  2. Ay, laddie. Ya cannae settle fir the first offer…

  3. To Whom Should You Sell Your Body?

    Burke and Hare, maybe?

  4. If those I leave behind can profit from selling my body, I strongly encourage them to do so. It’s an empty vessel. Consciousness for the secular, the soul for the believers has already left. As with other empty containers, it is environmentally responsible to find another use for it. If the best you can get is $2.12 from Alpo, take it.

    You’d expect that modern, educated, rational people would recognize a dead body for what it is, trash with some utility. Don’t even get me started on on all the primo real estate being wasted by cemetaries.

  5. One word: Biodiesel.

  6. Actually, I have to give major credit to Reason here.

    A few months back they ran a great piece ‘Who owns your body after you die?’ or something like that.

    They mentioned this company LifeCell in there, I bought a shitload of their stock, and the market has handsomely rewarded me for it.

    Thanks Reason, you made me a good chunk of change this year!

  7. Son of a bitch!

    And ye cannae be slow, daftie!

  8. To Whom Should You Sell Your Body?

    Guys, mostly.

  9. I’m currently shopping around an article I wrote about the booming BodyPartsMarket in Mumbai. Would Reason be interested in printing it? It’s got lots of interesting information about people who SellTheirBodyParts like kidneys, eyes, bones, and other parts. It’s truly dynamism at work!

  10. What? Where’s the love for Soylent Green?

  11. I had Kerry Howley’s excellent article to cite as evidence for my belief that in the TV serial Lost, the supposedly newly dead are actually the borrowed corpses of tissue donors. We got a clue to that effect in an early episode when character Claire, eulogizing the supposed victims of a supposed plane wreck who were being cremated en masse, mentioned that one of them (apparently according to hir driving license) was to have been an organ donor.

    On Lost they’ve shown us they have the technology to temporarily simulate the death of a live human, and they’re using magic tricks like the Coffin Escape to spirit away the living “dead”. Nearly everything on the show is fake, including plane wrecks, pregnancy, childbirth, paralysis, shootings, and the history of the characters. It’s all about magic tricks and confidence games in today’s surveillance society.

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