The prosecution of a former Harvard Medical School employee over an alleged ring used to steal human remains prompted experts to call for federal regulations for a practice they say is largely unregulated and has increased in recent years with the emergence of for-profit “body brokers.” .
The school’s anatomical donation program, which employed a manager accused of illegally selling body parts to a nationwide network of buyers, is similar to dozens of others across the country trying to “advance science and education,” said Thomas Champney, a bioethics expert at the University of Miami.
But unlike organ donation, which is strictly regulated by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968, there are few rules for nonprofit programs or companies that sell donated bodies to medical device manufacturers, law enforcement agencies and others, said Champney, who also serves on the administration of an organ donation assists body donation program for Florida’s State Anatomical Board.
“What I really want from the federal government is basic enforcement of how we deal with authorities,” he said. “Currently, if I want to participate in a body donation program, I don’t have to go to anyone to get certified.”
There should also be rules mandating a “revenue neutral” status and more transparency, he said. For example, if someone donates their body to a university, there are no federal guidelines that require the school to disclose whether the body is being “disarticulated” — or dismembered and otherwise used.
“Some may reveal it more easily than others,” he said in an email. “There are no rules, so people do what they’re ‘comfortable’ with.”
It’s not clear if there were flaws in the Harvard program that allowed former manager Cedric Lodge to allegedly steal organs and remains from the school’s morgue and sell them.
Several others, including Lodge’s wife and an employee at an Arkansas morgue, have also been charged under the alleged scheme.
In a statement last week, Harvard Medical School said it was “appalled” by the allegations and had appointed a panel of experts to review its policies and practices.
When asked Wednesday whether any of those policies may have contributed to Lodge’s alleged crimes, a school boy said it was premature to comment before the expert report is presented later this year.
Lodge’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday night.
Michael Burg, an attorney representing a group of 10 people that won a $58 million judgment in 2019 against the owner of an Arizona company over what Burg’s law firm called an “egregious body-conciliation scheme,” wondered how Harvard’s Supervision of lodge apparently was so lax.
“What kind of supervision did he have?” Burg said in an interview. “This is a prominent university. There should have been supervision.”
Burg added that organ donation rules should be extended to bodies.
“If you want to take carcasses and corpses, dismember them and sell them, you don’t need a license. Anyone can do it,” he said. “It is ridiculous.”
“You can’t sell hearts, livers and kidneys,” he added.
Martine Dunnwald, president of the American Association of Anatomy, an industry group, said in a statement last week that the group condemns the “commercialization of human body donors and any actions that violate donor ethics and trust.”
“To ensure the ethical, legal, and responsible operation of body donation programs across the country, the AAA calls on government and law enforcement agencies, academic institutions, and regulators to achieve both justice and collective reform to prevent the abuse and commercialization of human body donors. ” She said.
A spokesman did not respond to requests for interviews asking for more details.
Champney, a member of the AAA, said the group has developed a set of guidelines for universities and other nonprofit groups dealing with body donations, but he said these act as best practices rather than mandated guidelines.