America’s Dirty Little Secret: Body Trading

Many people agree to be organ donors with the idea that their bodies can be of some use after they die.

By Ryan Velez

Many people agree to be organ donors with the idea that their bodies can be of some use after they die. However, Reuters has done an ongoing expose of the body trade, and shows stories of exploitation and misappropriation of bodies.

The main focus of this article is Biological Resource Center. This is one company that operates in the minimally regulated and little-known industry. Reuters obtained thousands of documents and records that covered exactly how body parts were used and how much the company got for them.

“For $607, BRC sold the liver of a public school janitor to a medical-device company. The torso of a retired bank manager, bought by a Swiss research institute, fetched $3,191. A large Midwestern healthcare system paid $65 for two femoral arteries, one from a church minister. And the lower legs of a union activist were purchased by a Minnesota product-development company for $350 each.”

Part of the darker side of this trade, aside from its macabre vibe, is the role that the disadvantaged play in keeping it running. For raw material, the industry relies in large part on people too poor to afford a funeral, offering to cremate a portion of each donated body for free.

“A Reuters analysis of BRC donor files from May 3, 2011 through January 20, 2014 confirmed how important the disadvantaged were to business. The vast majority of BRC donors came from neighborhoods where the median household income fell below the state average. Four out of five donors didn’t graduate from college, about twice the ratio of the country as a whole.”

Brokers present next of kin or family with a consent form that gives brokers the right to dismember the dead, then sell or rent body parts to medical researchers and educators, often for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some say that these documents are difficult for relatives to understand.

Since 2004, when a federal health panel unsuccessfully called on the U.S. government to regulate the industry, Reuters found that more than 2,357 body parts obtained by brokers from at least 1,638 people have ended up misused, abused or desecrated.

Reuters reported that BRC also sold body parts to U.S. Army contractors for military experiments. A Pentagon spokeswoman said BRC provided the body parts “under false pretenses,” misleading the Army that consent had been secured for donors to be used in destructive tests. The widows of two men whose bodies were used in that way say they were persuaded to amend their consent forms, but didn’t understand what was going on, as this was a traumatic time for them. “They prey on people that have no money, that are poor, that have no insurance – like us,” Dona Patrick, one of the widows said.

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