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Dishonoring the Dead

March 12, 2004

What's perhaps most shocking about the arrest of a UCLA official accused of trading in parts of donated human bodies for his own profit is that it should have proved so shocking to university officials.

According to Ernest V. Nelson, a human-tissue broker, Henry G. Reid, the director of the university's willed body program, gave him access to the program's freezers twice a week for six years, permitting Nelson to cut up cadavers and take parts away.

It is illegal to profit from the sale of body parts. UCLA officials, however, have had ample warning that such transactions are all but inevitable without aggressive oversight.

The criticisms started in 1996, when families of donors filed a lawsuit claiming that UCLA had mishandled cadaver remains for several decades after it started the world's first donation program in 1950. They continued three years later, when the director of UC Irvine's cadaver-donation program was fired after allegedly selling six cadaver spines to a Phoenix research company.

These shady activities are encouraged by federal laws that, although forbidding sales, allow generous body-preparation, or "service," fees. The law's failure to explain how to assess such fees needlessly blurs the line between philanthropy and profiteering. The commercial exchange of human bodies has soared in recent years, largely because of inconsistent federal policies and poor oversight.

Entrepreneurs -- for instance the companies and middlemen who supply skin for grafting -- say the rules are too sweeping in prohibiting markets for lifesaving human tissues. Rather than pass more prohibitions, the government might serve both donors and researchers by setting strict guidelines and regulating the trade that occurs.

UCLA medical school officials say they won't decide whether to reopen their willed body program until they receive a report from former Gov. George Deukmejian, who has agreed to oversee an administrative investigation and suggest reforms.

Meanwhile, there are obvious things they and other medical schools could do, including having discussions with bioethicists and biomedical companies about whether open commercial exchanges can be safely regulated.

Cadavers come from generous people who wanted their remains to do good. Most donors and their families probably wouldn't mind if the university made a few dollars while the bodies still benefited research. But they deserve honesty.

The current situation -- body parts being traded in a sort of biomedical Wild West, with few sheriffs and lots of shady characters -- deceives families that have placed the most fundamental kind of faith in science.

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