Reuters spent more than a year examining the workings of a multi-million dollar industry that dissects, rents and sells human bodies. Such firms, commonly known as body brokers, acquire, usually for free, bodies that have been donated to science. Then they often cut those bodies into pieces and sell the parts for hundreds or thousands of dollars each. The buyers are typically medical researchers, medical-device makers or organizations that train doctors.
As part of our examination, we sought to determine the ease with which body parts might be bought – and whether or to what extent body brokers would vet buyers. We also wanted to assess the condition of the specimens when they arrived to determine whether they would prove suitable for research.
Reporters Brian Grow and John Shiffman and editor Blake Morrison spent much time up front making sure our unusual effort adhered to laws applicable legal and ethical standards. Grow sent purchase inquiries to body brokers from his work email account. He used his name and identified his employer, Thomson Reuters. A simple Google search of his name by the company would have identified his role as a Reuters reporter.
One broker, James Byrd of Restore Life USA in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered to sell a cervical spine and sent us X-rays. Reuters bought the cervical spine and two human heads from the firm.
To handle the specimens safely, legally and respectfully, we enlisted the guidance and assistance of one of America’s foremost experts on body donation: Angela McArthur, who directs the anatomy bequest program at the University of Minnesota and has drafted best-practices guidelines for national donation programs. She examined the body parts and provided secure and sanitary storage at the medical school’s anatomy facilities in Minneapolis.
Under Tennessee and Minnesota law, the sales and purchases were legal. Although laws expressly prohibit the sale of body parts transplanted from a dead person into a living one, most states are silent on the sale of body parts for research or education.
The documents accompanying the specimens Byrd sent Reuters did not identify the donors but did list their dates of death. By reviewing obituaries in the Tennessee area, Reuters tentatively identified one of the donors as Cody Saunders of Townsend, Tennessee. Byrd sold Reuters the young man’s cervical spine.
We then conducted DNA testing, comparing a sample from the spine to DNA swabs from Saunders’ parents, who cooperated with us. The samples were sent to the Forensic Science Program at Western Carolina University. The test showed the spine belonged to Cody Saunders.
Reuters subsequently cremated the cervical spine at the wishes of the Saunders family, and Grow returned the ashes to Cody’s parents in Tennessee this month. The two human heads are currently being stored at the University of Minnesota.