When people donated their bodies to medical science through the Tulane School of Medicine's willed body program, they were probably not expecting to have them blown up on land mines at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
It apparently was also a surprise to the medical school, which transferred cadavers it could not use to a broker, National Anatomical Service. Tulane thought the broker would distribute the bodies to other medical schools. Instead, the cadavers reportedly were transferred to the military for a processing fee of up to $30,000 each to test footwear designed to protect soldiers from land mines.
These ethical and public policy problems are further highlighted by the controversy over the recent arrest of the director of the willed body program at UCLA for illegally selling body parts.
First, donors of bodies to medical science and their families should not be deceived, even unintentionally, about where and how the donated bodies will be used. Tulane has suspended its contract with the body broker, but it should also apologize to families who have trusted it to deal respectfully with the remains of their loved ones. To underline the seriousness of this apology, Tulane should guarantee to monitor the end use of any bodies with which the university has been entrusted. Other medical centers that have donated bodies should commit publicly to do the same.
Second, there should not even be a market in bodies and body parts. The surplus of bodies donated to some medical centers is matched by a legitimate need elsewhere for bodies and body parts for research, medical as well as military. These legitimate needs may well require an efficient distribution system to make the best use of these valuable resources. But efficiency should not trump either moral decency or the feelings of loved ones.
We need a national system that eliminates for-profit middlemen and offers complete and accurate information to donors and their families about how donated bodies and parts might be used. Congress should act to create a carefully regulated, non-profit system.
Why a non-profit system and not a more traditional market? Because human cadavers are not widgets. It is disgraceful to allow bodies to be treated as mere commodities, especially since these donated bodies represent true generosity on the part of donors and their families.
Respectful destruction of human cadavers is possible, but such respect requires an absolutely transparent system of public oversight, an end to body broker middlemen and a guarantee of truly dignified treatment for every human body within the system. Traditional markets are ill-suited to ensure that these steps are taken.
The public trust should not be betrayed here, lest fewer people donate their bodies. Public welfare depends in part on the continued use of bodies for research, and we allow the betrayal of this trust at our peril.
Michael Meyer, a medical ethicist and philosophy professor, is a scholar at the Markkula Center For Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, March 19, 2004.