Inside the Completely Legal Business of Selling Body Parts

Inside the Completely Legal Business of Selling Body Parts

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- A warning: The content of this story may be disturbing for some of you. - [Johnny] Last fall, a frozen dead body was brought into this Portland hotel. Then tickets were sold, and the ticket holders were let into this room while they watched this dead body be cut into and taken apart, examined for a paying audience.

Some reporters from a local TV station from Seattle caught wind of this and secretly filmed the whole thing. - [Reporter] At times, the professor encourages attendees to poke and prod the body. - [Johnny] They found that this dead body had belonged to a man named David Saunders, a World War II veteran from Louisiana.

He had died last year and had chosen to donate his body to science. But here he was a few months later, on display at a public event in an Oregon hotel where people paid hundreds of dollars to watch this live autopsy. These weren't doctors or med students in attendance. These were just everyday people who had bought tickets to the Oddities & Curiosities Expo. - It is, Chris, hard to believe that this kind of thing could actually be legal. - This is not what David Saunders signed up for.

He donated his body to be used for training doctors and improving medicine, not for a live public autopsy with $500 tickets. How is this possible? How can someone just purchase a dead body? - When it comes to- - Bodies- - Some critics have called it the Wild West out there, that there really are no rules. - I got really curious about this industry, and I wanted to dive in and understand what is going on here. As usual, it turned into kind of a deep dive. Suddenly I was digging through documents, and suddenly I'm looking into the details of organ transplants and cadavers and funeral homes, and what I learned through all of this is that once you're done with your body, there is a thriving market of people who wanna get their hands on it.

- [Reporter] The owner is selling body parts. - [Reporter] The FBI says grisly details of- - Before we dive fully into cadavers, let's do a commercial break so I can thank today's sponsor, which is BetterHelp. I'm really grateful for BetterHelp for supporting this channel and supporting the work that I do, but I'm also a believer in what they are doing, which is making therapy more accessible to the masses.

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- Okay, dead bodies. Never thought I'd be going into dead bodies, but here we are. Let's just say one thing upfront. Doctors like to learn how to be doctors using real human bodies. Like, medical students can't really practice hip replacements on living people, so they use the bodies of dead people, which are called cadavers. Oh, and this isn't a new thing.

Studying dead bodies can be traced back, like, thousands of years to ancient Egypt and Greece. But then it had a comeback in, like, the 16, 1700s in Europe. Working on dead bodies allowed physicians to actually see how bodies are organized- - [Narrator] The most important factor in the study of health and disease is man himself. - [Johnny] to understand how diseases spread, which in turn benefits the living. There was such a demand for dead bodies that the government in England actually passed this murder act that said any murderer who was hanged or executed could be given to a medical school and studied. And then to keep filling the demand, they actually, like, started hanging more criminals so that they could have bodies to study.

But demand was still too high, higher than the supply of hanged criminals, which led to the rise of grave robbing. - It's alive, it's alive! (tense music) It's alive! It's alive! (screaming) - People were robbing graves in the name of science, and it was seen as a big problem. But then again, there's this tension here, which is, like, they're using these bodies to learn, to understand how to do medical procedures, and that's better for humans.

They eventually expanded the law to say anyone who was unclaimed, didn't have family come claim them, could be used as cadavers. But even still, during the 16, 17, and 1800s, when all of this medical progress was happening, the demand for cadavers totally outstripped the supply. There was not enough dead bodies. And then in the 1960s, America is like, "Wait a minute. Did someone say supply and demand? I smell a free market. Why don't we just give people the option to donate their bodies so that we don't have to just wait for criminals and unclaimed people?" And some people were like, "Yeah, but now we have these synthetic models that are really good, and they're just like bodies, so we don't actually need real bodies."

And the doctors were like, "No. There's nothing like it. There's no replacement."

So thus begins the era of body donation. (intense music) Wait a minute, is this the same as being an organ donor? The answer is no. I'm an organ donor. I mean, this is my driver's license. And when I got my driver's license when I was 16, I checked the box: "I wanna be an organ donor." If someone needs a heart transplant or a kidney and I suddenly die of an accident, I'm totally down with giving my heart to somebody else so that they can live.

Absolutely. But it turns out that organ donation and giving your body over to science are two totally different things. (thoughtful music) Okay, so we have two categories here. One is the transplant category, which is, like, the organ donation. It means removing body parts that are gonna be put back into another living person. This is what I opted for by becoming an organ donor on my driver's license.

Let me just play out the scenario of how this works using my friend Sheila. Sheila is from Texas. She was in a bad accident and had a traumatic brain injury. She's currently in the hospital on life support and has zero brain activity.

The hospital kinda knows where this is going, and so they call a company called an organ procurement company, an OPO, and they tell them that, hey, Sheila's gonna die soon. The OPO company verifies that Sheila is on the organ donor list. They quickly connect with her family to tell them that they will be honoring her wishes by donating her organs once she passes.

And then the company asks Sheila's family if they would also allow her tissues to be donated, and the family inevitably responds with "Tissues? What do you mean?" And they explain that in addition to her organs, they could also use her skin, her bones, her eyes to help with all kinds of medical devices and treatments. They tell Sheila's family that one tissue donor can heal the lives of more than 75 people. So the family agrees.

Once Sheila dies, her heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines, kidneys are all removed, put on ice, and sent all around the country to hospitals where people are in desperate need of organs to stay alive. They've been sitting on a waiting list for months or even years, and today is their day, thanks to Sheila and her donation of her organs. Oh, and this happens really fast, like, within hours, because these organs can't stay alive outside of a body for long. Then they take out her tissues. Her heart valves are sent to a nearby hospital to help people with heart defects, her skin is sent to Iowa to help reconstruct a child's cleft palate, her corneas are sent to an eye bank in Louisiana to help restore eyesight, and some of her body fat tissue is sent to California to be made into injectable lip fillers? That's not saving lives.

But yeah, that's a part of this too. Anyway, back to Sheila. After all of her organs and tissues have been taken out of her and sent around the country, she gets stitched up and returned to her family, where they can then bring her to a funeral home and prepare her for her funeral. Honestly, it's a modern miracle that we can even do this. It saves tons of lives every year, and I'm totally down with being an organ donor.

Not really into my fat being used as lip injections, but whatever, I'm down with the system. Now I wanna talk about the other category, the non-transplant industry. This is the one that I've been thinking a lot about lately and that I had no idea existed until I started diving into this video.

Let me explain how it works on this side of things, and I'll do so with my friend Shaun. These are not real people. Like, Sheila's not a real person. Shaun is not a real person. These are invented characters in the name of explaining this process.

Thank you for your concern. Shaun lives in Arizona. He's at the end of his life and he's at a hospice care. One day, someone shows up to the hospice.

They are from a non-transplant anatomical donation organization, or a NADO, or I'm just gonna call it a body broker. A body broker person approaches Shaun and pitches this idea that Shaun could donate his body to science. Shaun responds with, "Oh, you mean like becoming an organ donor? I'm already an organ donor," says Shaun. "Kind of," says the body broker guy, "but kinda different." They explain that Shaun can leave a lasting legacy with his anatomical gift that will train future doctors. Like, these are real marketing terms that body brokers use.

Oh, and best of all, Shaun, there's no cost in donating. In fact, the company will pay for a cremation so that he doesn't have to. This is starting to sound really good to Shaun. He likes the idea of donating his body to science, and he's very aware that his family doesn't really have the money to pay for a proper funeral, which can cost, like, $6,000 to $10,000. All that can be covered by this body broker, so he's into it. Shaun signs the papers, tells his family, "Hey, I'm not gonna get buried.

I'm gonna donate my body to science." A few weeks later, Shaun dies, and the body broker that Shaun signed with comes and picks up his body and bring it to his facility, where they properly embalm it and then they take it apart. Shaun is now a cadaver, a former body that exists now in a dozen or so parts that sit in a freezer and are shipped around the country and world for a variety of purposes.

His head is rented to a university in Pennsylvania where medical students are studying neuroscience. It is then returned and rented again to a university in Ecuador for the same purpose. Shaun's foot is then rented to a medical device company that makes screws and plates for ankle surgery. The company has a new product, a metal plate that they wanna show off to surgeons, so they send Shaun's foot to a medical conference in Las Vegas, where they fly a surgeon out for his class and pay him to demonstrate how this new device, this plate works on Shaun's foot, a real cadaver specimen.

They want the surgeons to buy the plate. His arm is then sold to another medical device company in Idaho, where they're testing a product that helps with carpal tunnel. It's not approved yet, but they're doing all this R&D, and they use Shaun's hand to run a few more tests so that it can be approved, go on the market, and make them money. His upper torso is sold to another medical device company that is hosting an all-inclusive event at a convention center in San Diego, where they're showing off their new titanium sternum, something that they want surgeons to use. So they fly out all these surgeons. They give them food and drinks and accommodations, all of this paid for by the medical device company.

Their hope is that these surgeons will have a good time, see the product being used on a real cadaver, and leave wanting to use that product in the next surgery, a new customer. Shaun's remaining lower half is sold to the Department of Defense, the US military, and they use it in a US Army blast experiment where the US Army uses it to test the effects of a new bomb on human tissue on a real human body. And after about a year and a half, what remains of Shaun is cremated, and those remains are sent back to the family.

Here's my issue with this. Shaun wanted to donate his body to science. I'm not sure he was exactly signing up to be the test subject for a multimillion-dollar medical device industry. But he was helping science, right? Medical devices are science. And his body was used by students at a med school.

But did Shaun know that that's what science was defined as? I mean, that body on that table in Portland being dissected at the Oddities & Curiosities expo, that body was obtained through this market, through this system. Was that science? So this is why I feel a little uneasy about this. I don't think this is a bad, corrupt industry. I just think it has some problems. Okay, hold on. I'm gonna bring you over to my very messy desk so that you can look at a couple of documents with me.

(mysterious music) (chair whirring) Documents. (voice echoing) Okay, so let me just make one thing clear here. I'm not trying to do some expose on cadavers and the cadaver industry. Like, this stuff helps people. We can go into an operating room and have a surgeon operate on us knowing that they've practiced on cadavers. I'm in total support of that.

My issue with this industry is much more with all of the incentives, the monetary incentives that are baked into this market that lead to some abuses. Let me explain what I mean. The first thing I'm most concerned about is the lack of regulation. There's not a lot of regulation on what these body brokers have to divulge and explain to the person who is donating their body. We've been documenting how these body brokers market the idea of giving up your body. "Supporting medical research advancements."

"Medical advancements." "Advances in medical and physician training." "Improvements in the quality of life for generations to come." "No cost." "No cost." "Anatomical gift."

"A powerful gift." "There's no greater gift..." "Benefiting humanity and providing hope for future generations." "Donate your body to science." (playful music) This stuff is framed as an altruistic donation to future generations.

And so while there's real truth in that, what we don't see is the reality of what happens after your body is donated. This is a massive industry. I got my hands on the public record tax forms of one of these body brokers. This company brought in $441 million of revenue.

This is 2019. I mean, that's a huge revenue. That's, like, a big business. Let's get a comparison here.

What's a company that makes about that much revenue? Bingo. Welcome to the finances of Del Taco Restaurants, Inc., where we can see that Del Taco brought in $471,456,000 of revenue.

Del Taco, a giant fast food chain, brought in as much money as one body broker. I'm telling you, it's a big freaking business. Oh, and while we're here in the documents, why don't we just see how much the CEO of this nonprofit body broker made? The answer: 1,939,640 US dollars. The reason why this is concerning to me, when you have a profit-incentivized market in companies, often what you see is these companies going to great lengths to get their profits higher and higher.

One thing we found in our reporting is, these body brokers have started working with funeral homes. So now they have an arrangement where the funeral home will get a kickback, they'll get paid a commission if they can sell the grieving family on donating their loved one's body to this body broker. Reuters did some really good reporting around this in 2017 and found dozens of funeral homes that have this mutually beneficial business relationship, like, sales relationship with body brokers.

This is exactly my issue with all of this. The funeral home now has an incentive to push body donation onto these families. So yeah, I'm just trying to prove that there's a lot of money in this.

LifeNet, the nonprofit whose financial disclosure I have here, I have it because they're a nonprofit. A lot of these body brokers are for-profit companies, so we don't know exactly how much they make. We don't know exactly what means they're using to really maximize their profits. I found an actual menu that shows the price for each of these body parts.

There is a ton of money to be made in buying and selling body parts. Rather than this altruistic act of donating your body, when you see all these price sheets, it sort of just feels like a factory assembly line. There's one guy who was the head of a body broker who said he wanted to build his business to be the McDonald's of body parts. - I did it! That's $200 for me. - Now, look. We looked into a lot of these body brokers. Some of them are sketchy.

A lot of them are not. We went through the consent agreements for a ton of these body brokers. Honestly, a lot of these do a really good job of painting an accurate picture. Like, this one from OHSU in Portland, it makes you sign that you understand that "Upon my death, my body will be embalmed, dissected/disarticulated, or plastinated for permanent preservation. Part of these procedures may take a small amount of anatomical material recoverable or destroyed in the process." This is how it should work.

There should be total transparency. But unfortunately, that's not how it happens all the time. Again, this is the Wild West. It is the free market. There is so little regulation that anyone, and I mean anyone, can get into the donation business. So let me explain to you the horror stories of what happens in an unregulated market where there's profit incentives.

Viewer discretion advised. - [Reporter] The company violated everything they promised. - [Reporter] This is just wrong on so many levels. - A chop shop for human body parts. - [Reporter] Illegally sold body parts against donors' wishes. - [Johnny] One company was cutting up bodies with a chainsaw and not really tracking where the bodies went.

- The body parts were never reunited, and the cremated remains that were given to the family members may not be the cremated remains of their loved one. - [Johnny] The owner was eventually charged with fraud, but the charges were dropped because there aren't any laws for this. Here's another one that that Reuters investigation covered. In 2015, there was a neighborhood in Southern Nevada, and the neighbors were complaining about, like, some foul smells, as well as bloody boxes in the Dumpsters.

So health inspectors showed up, and they found a worker holding a garden hose thawing a frozen human torso outside in the afternoon sun. There was, like, bits of tissue and blood that were being washed into the neighborhood gutter. Like, what a nightmare. But again, because there's no rules or laws here, nothing could be done. The last one I'll tell you about, and then I'll spare you the rest, happened in 2014 when the FBI raided the biological resource center in Arizona and found what an agent called "various unsettling scenes." (cheerful music) I think we in the US love a good supply-and-demand story, but we have built a market with the right incentives to create so much supply that we actually have an excess, and we ship cadavers to other countries.

Speaking of other countries, I put a call out on Instagram to all of you in the rest of the world that is not the United States asking how you deal with cadavers, what's the culture around cadavers in your country, and I got some really cool responses. Leon from Croatia said that once the cadavers are done being used for research, the remains are buried in this famous, beautiful tomb. Sophie said that in Austria, there's a ceremony to honor donated bodies and that their remains are buried in a mass grave.

Fabia told me that in Portugal, there's a yearly ceremony in the medical community to pay tribute to the bodies that were used for learning. The same thing happens in Canada, according to Ellen. And then there's Taiwan.

Yi Lin Hsieh told me that students refer to the cadavers as their teachers, and then there's a memorial organized to honor them before the first incision ever takes place. Students will sometimes even visit the families of the cadavers that they worked on to learn about the people that they were. Thailand does something similar. People who donate their bodies to science get a really honorable title, and then medical students and monks will come together in a ceremony to pay tribute to these people who gave their bodies for science and learning. When the body has fulfilled its use and it's no longer useful for learning, they do a cremation and have a ceremony to thank these bodies, even will memorialize all of the donors' names in a pamphlet to say, "Thank you.

Thank you for teaching us." So the question is this: Should you be scared to donate your body? And the answer is absolutely not. In the beginning of this video, I talked about the situation of that World War II veteran being dissected in front of a paying audience. A horrible thing, but again, I hope I made it clear that that sort of thing is not common. In fact, the body broker who rented this body for the event released a statement saying that they were deceived.

Most body brokers, in my view, from what I've done in my reporting, are ethical and transparent and are respectful. But it's the few that take advantage of the lack of regulation that I think calls for more attention from the government so that people can actually feel confident in donating their bodies and knowing that they're gonna go to actually advancing scientific research and products. - I did it! That's $200. - [Advertiser] It's "Operation," the wacky doctors game where you're the wacky doctor! - So if I were thinking about donating my body to science, what I would do is go to a university and say, "Hey, do you have a program where someone can submit their body to be used in your research?" And if they do, you can be guaranteed that your body will be used to train medical students.

If you do decide to donate through a for-profit company, look to see if that company has been certified by the American Association of Tissue Banks, which often means they've been vetted. They're not just, like, some rogue profit-seeking person. In fact, if you want to go on to the website of this association, you can find a body broker that is accredited. Also, read the documents! All these disclosures have a bunch of fine print on how your body will be used if you donate it. Oh, and I just wanna say one last thing about organ donation, which is different than full body donation. Only 2% of registered organ donors like me end up successfully donating their organs because the only way that they can get my organs out and get them transplanted into somebody else is if I die in a hospital on a ventilator.

That is why only 2% of organ donors actually get their organs procured. So it's really important that if you want to be an organ donor, you make sure you are signed up. There are a 100,000 people right here in the US right now who are waiting for a transplant, and the more donors there are, the more likely they will find a match. I'm gonna put links to resources where you can learn more about organ donation and whole body donation as well as really good reporting by Reuters and the "LA Times" and others on this topic.

A human body represents a life, and it deserves to be treated with respect, no matter if it's donated, cremated, or buried. My hope in making this video is that you'll better understand what this industry looks like, why it exists, why it needs to be regulated, and maybe you'll consider participating in it, because I do believe that donating your body to science can help improve our world. And honestly, once my body dies, I'm kind of totally down with it having a renewed purpose.

I just wanna know what that purpose is and how it will be used. So thank you for watching. So I wanna welcome the hundreds of thousands of new subscribers who have come to this channel in the past few weeks. Welcome. Yes, I usually do international relations topics, but really what I do on this channel is curiosity.

I'm a curious person, and I dive in to things and I learn about them, and then I usually share them with you. And so that's what this video is, and there's a lot more to come. Just a reminder that I have a Patreon for anyone who wants to support Patreon. I have presets and LUTs, which is how I color my videos and photos. I have a storytelling course on Bright Trip, which is a platform that I co-founded a few years ago where I tell you all about storytelling and my view on video storytelling with Nathaniel Drew, who's also another video storyteller.

So those are a few things that are in the description if you want to check them out. Thank you all for being here, and, I mean, look at you. You're at the very end of this video.

Like, you are at the last few seconds of a very long video, and you're just still here. That's amazing. So thanks for being here until the very end. See ya.

2022-05-26 14:07

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