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

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 Was Sold To The US Army Without Donor Permission
    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

    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

    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.

  • One Broker Sold Diseased Body Parts To Medical Professionals

    In 2016, police apprehended Arthur Rathburn for multiple infractions, including selling diseased human body parts to medical professionals. He stored the parts in unsanitary conditions and separated the body parts with the wrong equipment. He also lied to authorities about his practice.

    Rathburn had been running his business since 1989. Before that he worked for the University of Michigan's body donation program for five years, but "left the school, records show, following unspecified allegations of misconduct," according to Reuters. Over the years, Rathburn had a number of run-ins with the law concerning his body brokering - like when he transported 10 human heads from Canada. 

    Reuters reported that in December 2013, "after nearly four years of investigation, the FBI raided Rathburn's warehouse and office. Inside, authorities said, agents found 'thousands' of body parts." In 2018, Rathburn was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.

  • When A Body Is Donated, There Is No Rulebook For How It Should Be Treated

    When A Body Is Donated, There Is No Rulebook For How It Should Be Treated
    Photo: John Stephen Calcar / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    When donors sign the paperwork for their loved one's body to be donated to a non-transplant tissue bank, the process of what is and isn't allowed to happen is murky. For instance, there is no uniform law that dictates a set of standard procedures. Reuters notes that "few states provide rules governing dismemberment or use [...] Bodies can be bought, sold and leased, again and again."

    There is a thing called the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which outlines the regulatory practices surrounding donation. However, as Reuters discovered, it's more focused on how a body is donated rather than how it should be treated after the fact, or who the body (or parts) can be sold to.

    There have been various unsuccessful bids for regulation over the years, and the lack of safety concerns and general oversight has alarmed the public.