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