October 31, 2017 / 11:07 AM / a year ago

Criminals, slaves, minorities - the unseemly past of the body trade

(Reuters) - Body donation was not always considered the altruistic act it is today. It was also rarely voluntary. The earliest subjects included executed criminals, the indigent and victims of grave robbery.

“Doctors and students took for dissection the bodies of the losers of society,” said Michael Sappol, a former National Library of Medicine historian and author of “A Traffic of Dead Bodies.” “Until the 1950s, most were not consensual, and they were minorities – blacks, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans and the Irish.”

Public attitudes toward body donation evolved slowly, Sappol said, as “medical discoveries helped fortify people’s belief in the authority of doctors and medicine to improve lives.” Milestones included the development of anesthesia in 1846, and the X-ray in 1895.

To reduce body-snatching, early state laws granted medical schools access to unclaimed bodies. As the schools flourished, demand grew for cadavers, Sappol said, but rules and oversight varied.

That changed shortly after the world’s first heart transplant in 1967, raising concerns about the sale of organs.

In 1968, legal experts drafted the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a template to help states create their own laws and designed primarily for the organ transplant industry. The template and state laws have evolved since then, but the vast majority of states do not regulate the commercial trade in non-transplant body parts. University of Iowa law professor Sheldon Kurtz, who co-led 2006 revisions to the template, said debate on changes focused on transplant organs, not other body parts.

Relevant laws have not kept pace with changes in technology, culture and new business opportunities, said Boston College law professor Ray Madoff, author of “Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead.” Most people are surprised to learn, she said, that once a body is donated, relatives surrender legal control over what happens next.

“Any instructions you leave with regard to your body are really advice,” Madoff said. In this regard, the law hasn’t much changed in a century.

Reporting By John Shiffman; Edited by Blake Morrison

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