Parts for Sale: The Body Trade in USA
Imagine if I asked you where I could buy limbs, or even a body, what would you say?
Well, hopefully, you would question my intentions, but your answer would probably be “the black market”. You’re not wrong, but an easier way to do this would be to contact a body broker to buy a body. This is completely legal. The body trade has been around since the 1800’s, and while the actual sale of the body and its parts is illegal, body brokers charge clients with a number of fees (such as the handling of the body or postage) in exchange for a body or limbs, and make a lot of money doing it (History Extra, 2012; Grow & Shiffman, 2017).
A brief history of the body trade
The history of the body trade traces back to the 1800’s, when bodies were needed to teach medical students how to conduct different operations and surgeries. In Britain, student doctors were required to complete the dissections of two human bodies in order to earn their qualifications. Due to the increase in medical students, bodies became harder and harder to obtain. Where there were so many prospective clients, there needed to be a salesperson, and this was the origin of body brokers (History Extra, 2012). Body brokers in the 1800’s would go through all means to get their hands on some bodies, whether it was staking out and claiming unclaimed bodies with no known identity or family, whether it was preying on the poor families that could not afford to bury their deceased loved one (which is the current practice as well), or from outright grave robbing. It is known that about 6,000 impoverished people, sex workers, and servants’ bodies were used in these medical dissections, and these individuals made up the vast majority of donations (History Extra, 2012).
Who are these body brokers?
There is currently no federal law that regulates or controls the body trade, meaning that there is no education or standard expected from “body brokers”. While there have been morticians that have doubled as body brokers, basically anyone can become a broker due to the lack of laws regulating the business/trade (Grow & Shiffman, 2017).
So, how are these parts obtained?
Bodies are obtained by brokers from hospitals and funeral homes. Brokers usually target families who may be struggling to cover the costs of a funeral service, or are in overall poor financial standing. Brokers offer free cremation if the family donates the body to them under the pretence that the rest of the body will be used for medical studies. Keep in mind that while this practice is legal, I never said anything about it being ethical… Anyways, real body parts are used in medical studies (and are actually cheaper than prosthetics!), the issue is that literally anyone is able to purchase a body part and, theoretically, do whatever they want with it once they have it. Therefore, there is no real guarantee that these families are donating their loved ones' bodies to science/research (Grow & Shiffman, 2017). While families can donate the body directly to medical research, donating to body brokers is much cheaper as they cover costs such as transportation and cremation (Shiffman & Grow, 2017b).
What happens to these bodies once they are donated to brokers?
In most places, anything could happen after a body is donated. Cadavers can and do go to science, which is incredibly helpful and has allowed us to make incredible advancements. One doctor, and former president of the American Federation for Medical Research, stated that some (potential) treatments would not have been discovered if they had not received cadavers by donation for their research (Grow & Shiffman, 2017). Unfortunately, this is not always the case and bodies can be, and are, misused. There have been instances of barbaric practices of dismemberment, such as using a chainsaw to separate limbs from the body, or counts of disturbing storage practices, such as casually stacking heads on shelves in dirty warehouses. Nonconsensual use of cadavers also occurs. A study done by Reuters found that 20 bodies were used in military experiments, despite the family explicitly not consenting to the donation of the body to the military (Shiffman & Grow, 2017a). As you look further into these stories, you can see that these atrocities are no mistake, and rather perfectly exemplify the lack of respect this trade has for the deceased and their loved ones.
An ethical dilemma
While this introduction to the body trade was very brief, it is painfully obvious how this trade exploits the lower class, working class and minority groups. This trend of abuse and exploitation will only continue to occur if we do not work to educate at-risk groups of the atrocities that come with donating a body to brokers. Furthermore, if we want to work to protect these vulnerable populations, then the body trade needs to be regulated as the organ trade currently is. Currently, only 10 states have laws and regulations concerning the body trade, but Reuters has found that only a “handful” of those 10 states will “closely inspect them” (Shiffman & Grow, 2017b). There is only so much I can write in a short blog post, so I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic to visit Reuters (which will be linked in my references list)!
Shiffman & Grow. (October 31, 2017abbb). In a warehouse of horrors, body broker allegedly kept human heads stacked on his shelves. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-rathburn/.
Shiffman & Grow. (October 24, 2017b). Body Donation: Frequently Asked Questions. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-qanda/.
Grow & Shiffman. (October 24, 2017). n the U.S. market for human bodies, almost anyone can dissect and sell the dead. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-brokers/
History Extra. (December 1, 2012). The Victorian Trade in Dead Bodies. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/the-victorian-trade-in-dead-bodies/