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What Is a 'Body Broker'?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

You probably felt pretty good checking the organ donor box on your driver's license application. And the thought of donating your body to science seemed a noble endeavor. After all, you're not going to be using it anymore -- it might as well go to someone in need.

At the same time, you're not able to keep an eye on where your body or organs go after you die. And a new Reuters investigative report claims that cadavers and body parts are being sold in a quasi-black market that's free from regulation or oversight, where so-called "body brokers" can thrive.

Cadavers in Commerce

While lacking in a legal definition, Reuters defines a body broker as "a company that acquires dead bodies, dissects them and sells the parts for profit to medical researchers, training organizations and other buyers." Body brokers can also cloak themselves in more innocuous sounding terms, according to Reuters:

Body brokers are also known as non-transplant tissue banks. They are distinct from the organ and tissue transplant industry, which the U.S. government closely regulates. Selling hearts, kidneys and tendons for transplant is illegal. But no federal law governs the sale of cadavers or body parts for use in research or education. Few state laws provide any oversight whatsoever, and almost anyone, regardless of expertise, can dissect and sell human body parts.

Most of those body parts, claims the report, come from the poor, who have often "drained their savings paying for a loved one's medical treatment," and are enticed by the offer of free cremation, but are unaware the bodies are sold instead.

Bodies as "Raw Material"

One would think the treatment of dead bodies would be a highly regulated industry. After all, there are dozens of laws regarding the disposition of corpses and their treatment. But that's not the case, according to Angela McArthur, director of the University of Minnesota Medical School's body donation program. "The current state of affairs is a free-for-all," McArthur, told Reuters. "We are seeing similar problems to what we saw with grave-robbers centuries ago."

The report describes awful behavior on the part of body brokers, and few legal remedies for their misdeeds. Without laws in place against this kind of mistreatment, law enforcement and families are left with little recourse:

Each year, thousands of Americans donate their bodies in the belief they are contributing to science. In fact, many are also unwittingly contributing to commerce, their bodies traded as raw material in a largely unregulated national market.

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