Be Useful, But Don’t Get Used: What to Think About Before You Donate Your Body to Science

For a lot of people, end of life planning creates a desire to be remembered after they’re gone. Some may only want to live on in the memories of the people they love. Others might be inspired to give to charity or to do something creative, to literally leave their names on something lasting. But one of the simplest ways to contribute to the future might be to consider the act of whole-body donation.

Medical researchers and scientists can’t develop the treatments and medicines of the future without real human bodies to help them. Despite modern technology offering virtual realities, anatomical models, video recordings, and simulations, there is no substitute for human remains in training medical students and surgeons. Cadavers help them practice the skills they use on live patients and develop new treatments and devices without hurting anyone. These innovations rely on whole body donations to make them possible.

In the past, medical schools and universities were the only places most people knew accepted body donations. Today, however, people have a choice about where to donate.

Organ transplant programs are an obvious choice for a lot of people, but many don’t know that the requirements to be an organ donor can be very strict. Everyone should register to donate at their local DMV, but the US Department of Health & Human Services reports that only 3 out of every 1000 people in the US die in a way that qualifies them to be organ donors. That means many generous people will be turned away and will need to make other plans. This is where tissue banks and whole-body donation programs come in.

“Whole-body donation program” is an easy to understand term for what people in the fields of science and medicine call a non-transplant tissue bank. These are companies that exist to provide medical researchers with the donated bodies they need to continue their work. Donors to these programs will not have their organs and tissues transplanted into living patients. Instead, they will go to medical schools, universities, surgical training programs, and medical science companies to help with important research. Examples might include gross anatomy classes, courses to teach surgeons new and less invasive techniques for use on future patients, or research departments looking to build better medical devices, like artificial joints or new kinds of pacemakers.

Body donation programs can be large or small, private or public, for profit or not-for-profit. The important thing to know is whether they are accredited or unaccredited. This means finding out whether they have anyone watching to make certain they stick to scientific and ethical standards that protect their donors, as well as the researchers who use those donations.

If you try to research body donation on the Internet, you will quickly run across examples of why accreditation is so important. News reports about families receiving concrete dust instead of their loved one’s ashes; about funeral homes who sold body parts of their clients without proper informed consent from the family; about improper storage or shipments of body parts; these are all the kind of horror movie stories that scare people away from donating their bodies to science. The truth, though, is that these events can almost always be traced back to unaccredited donation programs.

The American Association of Tissue Banks (the AATB) oversees accredited whole-body donation programs. This is the same group that makes the rules for the donated tissue that is transplanted into living patients. It sets the standards for how whole-body donation programs operate and how they treat and protect their donors. AATB requirements cover who can donate, what diseases are tested for, how donations are traced from start to finish, how data is kept safe, and how donors and donor families should be treated. These rules make sure donors are treated with respect and keep researchers safe. The AATB routinely audits and inspects the programs it accredits to make sure they follow the rules.

Having a system in place where an outside group keeps tabs on donation programs means that donors know they will never end up as the star in one of those gruesome headlines. A program that couldn’t trace and deliver a donor’s ashes, for example, would never earn—let alone keep—AATB accreditation. This assures people who want to donate their bodies to science they can feel confident they will be treated well and will have an impact on genuine medical research.

In the end, the desire to help advance medical science is something we should encourage. It will help all of us to live longer and healthier lives. By checking to make sure the program you donate to is accredited, you can be certain that your body will be useful to future generations and not be used by careless indivuduals.


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