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Congress Moves to Regulate Body Brokers

March 19, 2019
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Congress Moves to Regulate Body Brokers

Brookfield, Wis. – When a family chooses to donate a loved one’s body for education or research, they do so with the hope that they will make a difference in the field of medicine. Regrettably, many are unknowingly contributing to a for-profit industry in which the body of their loved one could be traded as raw material in a largely unregulated national market. With the introduction of H.R. 1835 in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress is taking an essential step toward regulating this industry. This bill has the full support of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

When a family donates a loved one’s organs or tissues for transplantation, the process is transparent and tightly regulated. When donating organs and tissues, a family can usually specify which organs they wish to donate in advance and can oftentimes still opt for an open-casket funeral.

Some families choose to donate their loved one’s body for scientific or medical research, an equally worthy choice. With whole body donation, bodies and body parts are used for education, research or the advancement of medical, dental or mortuary science. Researchers rely on donated human body parts to develop new surgical instruments, techniques, implants, medicines and treatments for diseases. Surgeons, paramedics and funeral directors use donated bodies and body parts for training, education and research.

In most states, whole body donations may be made to a university, a state agency or a non-transplant tissue bank, which includes brokers who sell bodies. The brokers make money by providing bodies and dissected parts to companies and institutions that specialize in advancing medicine and other trades through critical training, education and research.

The poor and elderly are often encouraged to donate their loved one’s body to science because some non-transplant tissue banks pick up the body, transport it and cremate it for free. Most university and state-run anatomy programs do not actively solicit donations. Some medical schools have reported that competition from body brokers has reduced the number of bodies donated to schools to train students because some brokers are able to offer donors more favorable terms, such as free removal of the body.

Non-transplant tissue banks are not covered under the same laws that cover organ and tissue transplantation. Few state laws provide any oversight whatsoever and almost anyone, regardless of expertise, can dissect and sell human bodies and body parts.

Under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, most state anatomical gift laws largely regulate just one side of the process – how a body may be donated. Most do not address what happens next, such as how brokers dissect, handle and ship the parts; the prices they set on human remains; to whom they sell them; how the parts are used by buyers; or the rights of donors and next-of-kin.

In almost every state, it’s legal to sell the human remains of adults. Generally, a broker can sell a donated human body for about $5,000, though prices sometimes top $10,000. Bodies and body parts can be bought, sold and leased, again and again. As a result, it can be difficult to track what becomes of donors’ bodies, ensure they are handled with dignity, and returned to their loved ones after cremation.

Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated.

In one example of the heartache caused by the lack of regulation, a woman in New Mexico claimed that employees from a body broker in Albuquerque, N.M., visited her and made a heartfelt pitch: the generous gift of her father’s body to science would benefit medical students, doctors and researchers, citing several possible contributions, including that it might be used to train surgeons on knee replacement techniques.

It took weeks longer than promised to receive what she was told were her father’s cremated remains and once she received them, she suspected they were not his ashes because they looked like sand. She was correct.

In April 2010, she was told by authorities that her father’s head was among body parts discovered at a medical incinerator. She also learned – for the first time, she said – that the broker was in the business of selling body parts. Inside the company’s warehouse, authorities found at least 127 body parts belonging to 45 people. “All of the bodies appeared to have been dismembered by a coarse cutting instrument, such as a chainsaw,” a police detective wrote in an affidavit. The owner of the company was charged with fraud.

H.R. 1835 will transform the landscape by providing the Secretary of Health and Human Services with oversight of any entity that deals with human bodies and non-transplantable body parts donated for education, research and the advancement of medical, dental and mortuary science. The bill also, among other things, creates a clear chain of custody for each human body or body part, ensures shipments of human bodies and body parts are properly labeled and packaged, and ensures the respectful and proper disposition of donated bodies and body parts. The bill also sets up penalties for violations of the act.

“Families that donate a loved one’s body for research or education often find comfort in knowing their loved one will help improve the health and wellness of others,” said NFDA President Chuck Bowman, CMSP, CFSP, CCO. “The tragic headlines about body brokers taking advantage of the generosity of donors and donor families by barbarically dismembering bodies and selling and reselling body parts at a substantial profit are shocking. By passing H.R. 1835, Congress will bring accountability and transparency to the whole body donation process, ensuring donors’ bodies are treated with dignity and respect at all times.”

NFDA is the world’s leading and largest funeral service association, serving more than 20,000 individual members who represent nearly 11,000 funeral homes in the United States and 49 countries around the world. NFDA is the trusted leader, beacon for ethics and the strongest advocate for the profession. NFDA is the association of choice because it offers funeral professionals comprehensive educational resources, tools to manage successful businesses, guidance to become pillars in their communities and the expertise to foster future generations of funeral professionals. NFDA is headquartered in Brookfield, Wis., and has an office in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.nfda.org.