Graveyard Shift

Donating Your Body To Science Can Open Up A Nightmare World Of Illegal Corpse Trafficking 

Trilby Beresford
Updated February 26, 2019 30.5k views 13 items

Donating your body to science is a very personal decision, and one would hope that everything is taken care of and respected exactly as it should be. If things go according to plan, the donated body is used for scientific research or given to medical schools for educational purposes.

And then there are such things as non-transplant tissue banks, otherwise known as body brokers. There's a dark side to body brokering in the United States, meaning that things that aren't supposed to be allowed to happen to a person's body end up happening. For instance, the deceased might have indicated they wanted their body to go toward medical research or education, but it never gets there. It goes somewhere else, often for a profit. The body brokering industry is highly unregulated and unpredictable.

One Grandmother's Body Was Sold To The US Army Without Donor Permission
One Grandmother's Body W... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Donating Your Body To Science Can Open Up A Nightmare World Of Illegal Corpse Trafficking
Photo: US Army Air Forces/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When Doris Stauffer passed in 2013, her son Jim donated her brain to the Biological Resource Center, indicating that it was to be used for research into Alzheimer's disease. In the paperwork, Jim restricted BRC in doing certain things; he didn't want Doris's body to be used for military or traffic-related experiments - or anything that was non-medical. It sounds like a simple procedure, but it would go on to have suspicious results.

When Jim received his mother's cremated remains, there was no information about what medical research had been performed with Doris's brain. According to Reuters, her body had been shipped to the US Army for a taxpayer-funded research project - exactly what Jim had prohibited. Her brain was never used for Alzheimer's research, but her body helped the US Army figure out how people are affected by roadside [explosive devices].

Jim was outraged when he discovered what happened to his mother's body. Unfortunately, the dark underbelly of body brokering made this all too easy. 

Shockingly, Body Brokering Is Not Regulated By Federal Law
Shockingly, Body Brokeri... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Donating Your Body To Science Can Open Up A Nightmare World Of Illegal Corpse Trafficking
Photo:  Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Unlike the organ and tissue donation industry, which is regulated by the US government, the sale of cadavers or body parts is not governed by federal law. According to Reuters, most brokers won't guarantee they'll grant the donor's wish for designating the body for research into a specific disease because "it's too difficult to match inventory with research needs."

Low-income families are the ones who frequently fall victim to the perils of body brokering because when they can't afford a regular funerary service, they can donate the body to a broker in exchange for a free cremation. If the body is mistreated, they might not even learn about it. And if they do, the might not have the financial means to do anything.

Brokers Make Big Money From Selling Human Bodies
Brokers Make Big Money F... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Donating Your Body To Science Can Open Up A Nightmare World Of Illegal Corpse Trafficking
Photo:  Amadalvarez/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

When someone donates a body to "science," they can arrange for a non-transplant tissue bank (that's the fancy term for body broker) to pick it up for free in exchange for the body being used for medical research. The broker always comes out on top, because they make thousands of dollars on each body sold to medical businesses.

According to Reuters: "BRC charged $5,893 for a whole body in 2013; a few years earlier, the company priced spines at $1,900, legs at $1,300 each, and torsos at $3,500, BRC documents show." 

Against His Mother's Wishes, A Boy's Body Was Harvested For Profit

Jacob Sandersfeld suffered from spindle cell sarcoma. When he passed at age 23, his mom donated his body to the Biological Resource Center of Illinois as he had wanted. She specifically didn't want his body to be taken apart, but later on, found out that medical businesses had harvested some of his remains. 

She never received information about what exactly had happened to her son's body, and started to doubt whether the ashes she received were even his. She alleges that the contract was breached and initiated a lawsuit, citing common-law fraud and other infractions.