Unbeknownst to most Americans, every year the body parts of an untold number of deceased Americans are shipped across the world in containers like those on a Chinese freighter that departed from South Carolina last summer.
According to an investigation by Reuters, that particular Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship had been “bound for Europe” and “included about 6,000 pounds of human remains valued at $67,204.”
As shocking and horrific as this sounds, it’s perfectly legal and all part of a system wherein U.S. businesses dissect the bodies of “altruistic donors” and then ship them overseas “to medical training and research companies.”
It’s for science, basically, though there’s just one nagging caveat: Not everyone is aware that, when they sign a consent form to allow their bodies to be dissected posthumously for scientific purposes, chances are their bodies “might be dismembered and sent to the far reaches of the globe.”
“There are people who wouldn’t necessarily mind where the specimens were sent if they were fully informed,” remarked Brandi Schmitt, who directs the University of California system’s anatomical donation program. “But clearly there are plenty of donors that do mind and that don’t feel like they’re getting enough information.”
Particularly family members of the deceased, who often find out later that, “Hey, your brother’s (or sister’s or mother or whomever’s) body parts are now being examined and used for science in Germany or Israel, to name a few.”
Reuters notes that since 2008, U.S. companies that specialize in “body brokering” have exported human remains “to at least 45 countries, including Italy, Israel, Mexico, China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.”
“Whole bodies are studied at Caribbean-based medical schools. Plastic surgeons in Germany use heads from dead Americans to practice new techniques. Thousands of parts are shipped overseas annually; a precise number cannot be calculated because no agency tracks industry exports.”
It’s not the worse thing in the world, though clearly this system could use a lot more transparency, or so thinks Marie Gallegos, whose husband’s head was reportedly shipped to a dental school in Israel months after his death last May.
She told Reuters that after her husband’s death, a member of the so-called Donate Network of Arizona contacted her to ask for permission to use her husband’s body for science. What the representative neglected to mention was the fine print.
“She recalled signing two consent forms, one for Donate Network and one for the company she was told would handle the cremation, United Tissue Network. The UTN form authorized use of her husband’s body parts ‘both domestically and internationally,'” Reuters reported.
When she received her body’s ashes later that summer, she didn’t realize they didn’t include those of her husband’s head.
“Had I known that my husband’s head was over there (in Israel), I would have waited to have the ceremony. If they really wanted my husband’s body for these purposes, they should have told me upfront and verbally,” Gallegos said.
Another big problem with this system is a glaring lack of regulation. As noted by Reuters, “the body donation industry is so lightly regulated in the United States that almost anyone can legally buy, sell or lease body parts.”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should think carefully before you reply the next time someone asks you, “Can you give me a hand?”
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