Busy Bodies

    Lady Gaga didn't need to have animals slaughtered and then thinly sliced in order to clothe herself in meat. She IS meat, we are all meat, and tens of thousands of us are being consumed each year, although not, of course (at least we hope) by being eaten. Our bodies are being sought after, with growing urgency -- and even ruthlessness -- by the cadaver industry, which supplies everything from medical device makers to shooting ranges with whatever they need -- from a whole corpse to a tiny valve.
    So if you like expensive cuts of meat, you should really love yourself. Every corpse that travels through the system can generate anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 depending on how it is used, according to CNBC. Your body is worth way more than the finest-grade sushi tuna -- not to you, but to the company that induces you to give it away. 
   It is a commodity that is rapidly going global -- it's become a billion-dollar industry, and it's growing fast, according to the CNBC program. In an environment where supply is increasingly inadequate to meet demand, cadavers may eventually become another U.S. export product, like corn, wheat, and civilian aircraft, according to Harvard's Michel Anteby in a paper entitled A Market for Human Cadavers in All but Name?  
   "While the international organ trade is almost unanimously condemned, human cadavers can legally freely flow across the globe," Anteby says. It wouldn't be surprising if a futures market developed for our bodies. Sounds like a good investment.

   One can't dismiss the value of the body biz,  despite its unsavory aspects. Every year, millions of people around the world have their bodies repaired using spare parts taken from the dead. Tens of thousands of medical specialists practice new surgical techniques on various body parts, and the doctors of tomorrow gain extraordinary insight into human anatomy through the dissection process. Medical device makers can make excellent use of a shoulder, hand, hip or knee that has been "disarticulated" from a "specimen" that was once a person. Medical and pharmaceutical research are expedited when there is an adequate supply of fresh cadaveric material. Scientists in the public and private sectors, emergency medical workers, physical therapists, chiropractors and dentists claim to need cadavers for training and research. 
   No agency keeps track of whole-body donations in the United States. But Anteby cites research that estimates approximately 20,000 bodies are donated each year. In some states, unclaimed bodies are donated as well. Still, the refrain from both medical schools and corporate brokers is, "We never have enough to fulfill our needs."
   "The demand is skyrocketing," Anteby agrees.

   In the 1930s, a recently deceased human being was famously hurled down an elevator shaft to see how much damage would be done to its bones and internal organs. "Experiments" that are just as horrific are being conducted in the ghoulish free-for-all that is today's body-broker industry.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, many of those who donate their bodies "to science" are used as crash-test dummies (yes, it's still being done, in the 2011 Ford Explorer and by Saab, to name just two that have been mentioned recently. They say nothing can quite compare to a real body in gauging damage to internal organs). At some universities that carry out these tests for the auto industry, family members are informed that their loved one is being used this way only if they ask -- and really, who would think to ask? You've entrusted a medical school with your dear father, who wanted to help train future doctors. Would it occur to you to ask, "He isn't going to be smashed up in a car crash,  is he?
   The NFL tests helmets on human cadavers, and NASA uses them to gauge the stresses placed on the brain and spine during rapid descents. Back in the 1990s, a human skull packed with radiation sensors was flown on several Department of Defense-sponsored space shuttle missions. Mortuary students learn their trade by plumbing the innards of cadavers, draining them of blood and flooding them with formaldehyde. Donated bodies are strung up by their heads or necks for target practice, to test the amount of damage that various bullets can do. At a farm in Tennesee,  30-40 bodies per year are "planted' in all sorts of environments -- swamps, deserts, ponds, caves -- to chronicle the nature and speed of their deterioration, putrefaction and ultimately their explosion, from the buildup of internal gases. The Defense Department funds studies using cadavers to better understand traumatic brain injuries.
   If people give their informed consent for these uses of their remains, I think they are to be admired, and I assume the tests yield useful results.
   There is absolutely no evidence, though, that prospective body donors are presented with any such scenarios when they agree to sign over their remains. Those whose job it is to exploit people's humanitarian impulses portray the process as gentle and respectful, when in fact there are often chain saws and meat cleavers involved, not to mention grotesque violence. I guess it's better to do it to dead people than to live monkeys, those sweet little things with their terrified, pleading eyes.
   There seem to be two central issues that need to be addressed regarding this subject:  Do those who donate their bodies do so with informed consent -- that is, do they truly know what might be done with their remains? The answer, I believe, is no. The other question is: Do the companies in the body business comply with federal regulations that human cadaveric material may not be bought and sold? The answer to this question is also no. 

   Securing bodies for research has always been tainted and problematic, from ancient times, to the good-old grave-robbing heyday in the 1800s. It wasn't until the 1960s that institutional structures enabling the formalized bequeathal of bodies were introduced.
    Despite belated and half-hearted attempts to regulate the industry, the scandals continue, year after year. Funeral-home directors and owners of crematoriums have been caught selling bodies and body parts. The man who illegally harvested body parts from cadavers donated to UCLA's Willed Body Program and selling them to various companies.apparently netted hundreds of thousands of dollars (some estimates are as high as five million dollars.) 

   Today, there are those who -- with clear minds and big hearts -- bequeath their bodies to science in the hope of helping their fellow man. Web sites with heavenly clouds, flowers and songbirds advertise the immense contribution one can make through this simple gesture. Words such as dignity, respect, peace and grace imbue these sites with a quasi-religious glow. Science Care, a New York firm, displays a whole page of photos of its facility. It is clean, bright and colorful, much like a high-end daycare center, with not a body part or blood spatter in sight. 
    On the wall is a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:"Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?"
Phoenix Lobby

   The recession has brought a new tone to many of these corporate appeals, placing body donation more on the level of avoiding home foreclosure. Their sales pitches focus on the thousands of dollars you (or your loved ones) will have to spend on mortuary and funeral costs UNLESS you sign on the dotted line, in which case your death won't cost anybody anything.  
   Commissioned salespeople troll nursing homes and retirement communities and poor neighborhoods, getting  thousands of people -- some with dubious mental competency -- to sign on the dotted line.
   Our darling poster girl for body donation, Dreama, declares that she is "Calling all of those on SS disability, Medicaid and Medicare!"

Dreama Runyon 

   In one blog post, her headline is: Free Funeral Alternative Option Vs Paying For One! 
   "Are you concerned about how to pay for your final funeral costs?" she asks."Are you on limited fixed income?, working poor?, or moderate income? with no pre-paid burial plans or have a way to pay for your funeral expenses? Today's typical funeral costs range from $6,000-$10,000 and that doesn't even begin to include burial plots and gravemarkers or headstones expenses." 
   The cost of whole-body donation, she adds is "FREE."
   The company that she promotes, in post after post, is the Anatomy Gifts Registry (AGR), whose mission, she says, is "to Save Lives & To Find Cures For Many Diseases!"
   Its mission is also to make money, and it took in an estimated six million dollars last year.
   In what must have been a mental lapse about her purported status as a caring, compassionate and independent blogger, she answers questions about AGR by saying " We believe" and reffering  to "our facility."
   CLICK HERE to order an AGR information packet, she says. 
   A Maryland Gazette article about AGR from 2007 provides an unusually detailed description of  how the facility operates:
    Trained morticians wheel the bodies into a sterile room, much like a morgue. There are steel trays filled with neat rows of sharp instruments, which gleam beneath bright lights. 
  Thick steel doors along one wall open to reveal horizontal chambers for storing bodies. A cool breeze whispers faintly, the air filtration system.
   But the subtle details are overwhelmed by constant motion once the morticians start their work. They fill fat syringes with blood samples, testing each body for signs of infectious disease. Power saws and other steel tools are applied to completely disassemble each body, while specific limbs, bones and tissues are removed to fill clients' requests.
   Afterward, the needed samples are carefully packaged, wrapped and rewrapped in padded, sterile materials for shipping. The (parts from any given body) can go out to dozens of  local, national and even international researchers and medical institutions.
   The unused parts of the body are cremated on-site, with the ashes packed neatly into black plastic boxes for donors' families.
   "It's a unique way to honor someone," said Brent Bardsley, AGR's chief operations officer. "This allows a family or a donor to give a perpetual gift, a gift that will keep giving to mankind."
   And if you want to locate a dense pool of receptive donors, the Bardsleys found, Arizona is prime spot, with its many retirees. Although AGR is based in Maryland, the brothers first began marketing their donor program to Arizona residents through an office in Phoenix. They have been "very well received."
   AGR's business is growing by more than 50 percent a year, according to CNBC. Even though the freezers in the warehouse are full of "stock," they can't keep up with the orders, the report said.

   Anybody can become a tissue broker, CNBC's program said. "All you need is a freezer, a few saws, some other tools, and an account with a shipping company, and you're in business," an unidentified source reported. "All you have to do is figure out where you're going to get your bodies, and there's an unlimited number of people it seems who are willing to provide them with or without consent from the families."

    Picture this: In a hotel conference room, dozens of female heads are arrayed on cloth-covered tables. Soon a seminar on a new face-lift method will begin. Each physician has paid several thousand dollars to attend, confident that this well- publicized technique will inflate his income quite beautifully. He may also be instructed in he use of Alloderm, a dermal filler made from cadaver tissue that has been stripped of its epithelial cells but still maintains its collagen structure.
   One has to wonder whether the women whose heads and tissue were used in this way would have donated their bodies to science, if they had realized what sort of "science" it would be: the war against wrinkles.

    Those who oppose using human flesh for research wonder if knowing the gruesome details would make a difference to those who support body donation. There is particular revulsion for the commercialization of fetal tissue. Two body-donor firms conveniently have offices down the street from abortion clinics and have technicians on duty to carve up the fetuses within ten minutes after the abortion,  and get the requested parts on ice and on the way to the ordering researcher. 
   Actual requests for body parts such as a "four to six whole intact legs, including the entire hip joint per shipment," come with special instructions that the body be dissected by "cutting through symphysis pubis (pubic bone) and include whole illium." These requests almost always involved fetuses that were three weeks older than a fetus who could survive outside the womb. The men and women who perform these tasks are called " technicians" and are employed by companies that retrieve body parts,  also known as "harvesters," such as the Anatomic Gift Foundation and Opening Lines, headquartered in West Frankfort, Ill. These companies act as middlemen of sorts between the abortion clinic and the scientist. While AGF charges for "services" per specimen, competitor Opening Lines, a company that handles only fetal tissue, openly lists charges by the body part. For instance, it may charge as little as $150 for the retrieval of a liver or $500 for a trunk (with or without limbs); a spinal cord goes for $325.
    Nearly 75 percent of the women who choose abortion agree to donate the fetal tissue, an AGR representative says. Any unneeded skin, tissue, bones, or organs are ground up in the sink disposal or incinerated. 


   MARC -- a for-profit business -- opened four years ago after spending  $6 million to redo a former flower warehouse in Doral, Florida, including 38 stations in operating suites and an auditorium with a large screen for video conferencing. About 6,000 doctors -- many from countries that don't permit or whose cultures discourage body donation -- come here each year to learn new techniques. The firm buys cadavers for $10,000 each from two firms, Science Care and the LifeLegacy Foundation, both based in Arizona, and then carves them up to meet its needs.
    A spokesperson for Science Care said the company specializes in providing parts of corpses, shipping "human tissue across the entire world'' for medical education and training. "We customize whatever the researcher wants, to maximize the donation.''
   If you live in the San Francisco area, your body parts will likely be deposited in a tightly secured facility at San Francisco General Hospital that is filled with the sound of throbbing music. You will be diced into smaller parts by a group of young researchers who will test new orthopedic devices on you,  
    Because the demand for human tissue is outstripping supply so dramatically, a sordid marketplace of human cadavers has developed, "in which unscrupulous traders have used the bodies of those who haven't given their permission, with devastating consequences," says CNBC in a 2010 report on the value of your individual body parts. In Commerce for Cadavers, Michelle Godwin said an underground, illegal market of bodies and body organs has developed largely because of inconsistent federal policies and practices, including poor oversight of university hospitals, organ procurement organizations and biotechnology companies that engage in the exchange of body parts. . 
    “While federal law prohibits most sales of body parts, it is legal to charge fees for handling, procuring, storing and processing human tissue. Thus an entire body, parceled out and delivered to the highest bidder, can fetch tens of thousands of dollars in so-called processing fees — creating a powerful incentive for illegal sales," she says.
   "The law is no longer sufficient," according to Karmen Schmidt, PhD, head of the body donation program at Oregon Health & Science University. "Operating outside the medical institutional venue are a group of companies that are regulated by no one, and there's a lot of money being made."
    There have been countless calls for strengthening the  Uniform Anatomical Gift Act -- which most states have adopted -- such as clarifying the definition of reasonable fees for processing and transportation. But, as is the case with so many well-intentioned regulations,  even the existing provisions are not being enforced.

   Modern-day body snatchers provide bones, tendons and body parts other than transplantable organs to tissue banks, research facilities and other buyers in a murky, unregulated underworld, according to Annie Cheney, author of Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains.
  One spine, for example -- given freely by some tenderhearted person -- goes for at least $900, according to data compiled last year by CNBC. The shoulder will net at least $500, and the hand and forearm another $400. Your dear heart goes for only $500, while your carefully sliced-out corneas will fetch $6,000. Kidneys go for a mere $500, but an intact head can be had for no less than $10,000. Your brain goes for a mere $600, while your knees -- how can this be? -- go for $650 apiece (one surgical training lab director in Florida said he has paid anywhere from $930 to $2,500 for a knee), and tendons are $1,000 apiece. Sounds like someone's got his head up his patella. Heart valves are $7,000 apiece, and safinous veins are worth $10,000 a meter. Bones have many uses. One of the more surprising ones is they they can be ground into dust that is made into paste and used in periodontal surgery. 
   So go ahead and smile. Perhaps it will help some poor soul feel that he has made a real contribution.

An excellent NPR series on abuses in the "cadaver industry."