March 5, 2024

Controversy over shortages of cadavers for medical schools

A shortage of cadavers for students and a growing number of unclaimed bodies is leading to a revival of a 19th century practice.

A shortage of cadavers for students and a growing number of unclaimed bodies is leading to a revival of the 19th century practice of giving US medical schools first choice on unclaimed bodies before they are buried at public expense.

A new law in Illinois allows the medical examiner’s office to turn over unclaimed bodies to the Anatomical Gift Association (AGA) if they have not been claimed after two weeks and if they weigh less than 300 pounds and are free of communicable diseases. Then the body is embalmed and kept for 60 days before it is shipped to a medical school. If a relative claims the body, before or after dissection, it will be returned.

Laws enacted in the 20th century have made it easier for people to donate their bodies to science and most cadavers in medical schools have been bequeathed by the deceased persons or their families. However, fewer people are doing this. The Illinois AGA received only 483 cadavers in 2010, nearly half the figure for 30 years ago.

The issue is controversial. Some medical schools do not take unclaimed bodies. “I think it’s kind of revolting,” Ernest F. Talarico Jr., of Indiana University School of Medicine Northwest, told American Medical News. “It’s professionally wrong and ethically wrong.”

“A more robust search for family members should be done,” says Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University. “It’s tragic that people are so disconnected and so abandoned in their lives that no one close is there to bury the bodies of the dead, which is widely understood to be one of the fundamental obligations of a society and how a culture understands what it means to be human.” She feels that two weeks is far too short and wants bodies to be kept for six months.

Another Northwestern University bioethicist, Alice Dreger, worries that the policy will unfairly target the disadvantaged and poor.  “Historically speaking, most of the bodies that got used without family permission were the bodies of people who were poor, people of color, people who were socially marginalized, and I would worry in this circumstance the same thing is going to happen.” ~ Chicago Tribune, Oct 4; American Medical News, Nov 7

Michael Cook
<p><img alt="thumbnail" height="120" src="" width="120" /></p>
Creative commons
respect for bodies