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Donating One’s Body to Science in 2021

Donating One's body to science

Death is an inevitable outcome of life. Many humans undertake philanthropy during their lifetime. They spend their lives for the betterment of others. They find purpose and fulfilment in doing so. Charity is continued after their death through the formation of scholarship funds, public charitable trust, donation of accumulated wealth to the needy, research foundations, etc. Some find solace in the fact that their body could be donated to science, which might help find a cure for diseases or help science in general when they leave this world. However, for a few others donating their body to science could also be attributed to economic reasons – a desire to reduce the financial pressures of conducting a funeral and burial on their loved ones. Whatever the motivation, a decision to donate the body to science attests towards a noble cause.

Note – In most cases, the donor would know in advance if they are eligible to donate their bodies. However, the certainty that a body is accepted or rejected can be only known after your death. So it is always good to have a Plan B that your loved ones can follow if the body becomes ineligible for acceptance to a research program.

Conditions to be fulfilled for donating the body to science

Conditions to be fulfilled for donating the body to science
Conditions to be fulfilled for donating the body to science

Consent – The first thing that all programs need is the consent of the donor. The donor generally provides this before their death to the accepting program. However, if the donor hasn’t provided consent in this form, only the next-of-kin can give the consent on behalf of the donor after their death.

Eligibility – Body donations are not rejected based on age group, ethnicity or location. However, one cannot donate their body in case of exposure to contagious diseases before death or when it is reasonably certain to be the cause of death. Donor’s bodies also need to be unharmed and in one piece as much as possible.

Obesity – Human bodies that are overly obese may not be accepted for donation. Most of the research programs involve embalming the body to preserve it, which adds considerable weight to the body. Hence some programs might reject overly obese donors due to economic and logistical problems of handling the body.

Prior health conditions – Most programs also do not accept bodies from donors who have contracted diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis (A, B, and C), Tuberculosis and Covid–19 etc., considering safety issues.

How to donate your body to science: A step by step guide

How to donate your body to science: A step by step guide
How to donate your body to science: A step by step guide

Step 1: Deciding on the organisation

Medical schools, private companies and research organisations have whole body donation programs. First, look for entities in your geographical area since the procedures must commence as soon as possible after death. It would also be prudent to look for accredited organisations. This would mean that the organisations undergo due process and follow standards set by accrediting agencies such as The American Medical Education and Research Association (AMERA) and/or The American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). 

Step 2: Registering with the organisation

As described earlier, a prerequisite for donation of a body to scientific research and education is the donor’s consent. Therefore it is essential to narrow down on the organisations in your vicinity and contact them to understand the procedure. This ensures that you choose the right program that fits you and makes sure the entire process after death happens smoothly.

Step 3: Read the terms and conditions

Almost all programs offer coverage of entire expenses associated with the donation. However, it is better to be informed on all the particulars so that planning can be done accordingly. If there is anything specific to the family apart from informing the medical research organisations, it can be given special attention on the day of the death.

Step 4: Taking your family into confidence

While a good plan is essential, it is equally important to take your family into confidence about your intentions to donate your body for scientific research upon your death. Address their concerns, if any, and let them know that this is a consciously chosen decision. This will avoid any misunderstanding between your family member and donee organisations on the day.

Step 5: Take care of legal matters

Ideally, you’ll also want to take care of our will and create clauses that attest to your intention to donate your body after death.  

Step 6: Creating a Plan B

As described earlier, it is impossible to know whether the body is acceptable to the donee organisations until after the death. In the unusual circumstances that your body becomes ineligible for donation, i.e. Plan A fails, then it is always good to have a backup plan in the form of Plan B. This would reduce the pressure on your family, who would already be in a challenging situation

Step 7: Deciding whether a funeral / memorial service is conducted

Sometimes it is misunderstood that donating your body means one’s bereaving family members would not have a chance to say their final goodbyes. However, this is untrue, and most organisations are accommodative to let the families hold a funeral or a memorial service before donation. Necessary instructions may be passed to both family and donee organisations at the time of registration.

Things to consider before donating your body to science

Things to consider before donating your body to science
Things to consider before donating your body to science

Knowing what happens to your body when you die –

It is essential to know what happens to your body after you die so that your family members and the research organization or medical school accepting your body have a consensus about the intention and what happens. In the usual circumstances, the first step after a body is donated is to recover tissues from the body. This is done to enable a range of medical research and medical, educational purposes if donating to medical school. Research is ongoing in several fields, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and various cancer types. Some organizations also voluntarily disclose the details of research conducted using the donor’s body. In medical schools, your body is also used to teach surgeons as well as for anatomical purposes.

Discussing with your doctor – Discussing with your doctor can clear apprehensions regarding the donation process or how the body is going to be used. Your doctor may also be able to offer you guidance about medical schools that accept body donations as well as to conduct a preliminary assessment of your eligibility to donate.

Inform your next of kin on what to expect – It is also essential to bring your loved ones on board with your decision since, after your death, they will take care of the next steps. Inform them of your plan, contact details of the organisation accepting your body, the process that they will undertake, etc. Also, inform them of a Plan B that needs to be activated if the body is not accepted for any reason of ineligibility.

Expenses in connection with donating – The good news is that the organisations take care of all the expenses from collecting your body to transporting it, applying for death certificates etc.

Decide between donating the whole body or organ – Most medical schools and research programs have complete body donation programs where the entire body is donated to science. However, you may also alternatively decide that only your organs are donated (principally for the transplantation). You must decide on either of the choices available and make the plan accordingly. In organ donations, the organisations would return the body to the family members for cremation or burial after the organs have been harvested. Organ donation is also for a noble cause since it helps many recover from ailments or provides new bodily functions such as eyesight.

Advantages of donating your body to science

Economic reasons

Donations are considerably cost-effective since the medical school or research organisations take care of all the donation costs.

Full responsibility for handling borne by donor programs

The responsibility of transporting the deceased’s body, taking care of other official formalities such as death certificates etc., is taken care of by the donee organisations. The family members or next-of-kin are not required to either arrange or spend anything.

Simple to arrange

It is easier to arrange a donation than a funeral and cremation or memorial service since everything is pre-planned. The registration process to donate your body to research in itself is nothing complex. On intimation, by family members, the medical school or research organisation would send professionals to take care of all matters after that.

Thoughtful cause

The thought of donating one’s body after their death, which could only be of use to future human generations, is a profoundly thoughtful and noble act.

Disadvantages of donating your body science

Need to plan carefully

Donating involves planning for your death as against leaving it to your grieving family members. It also envisages the need to have a backup plan, just in case.

Donor programs are challenging when considered on need basis

Usually, all programs require prior registration since time is of utmost importance to ensure that the body is acceptable. And therefore, there may be difficulties in locating and arranging for donor programs upon death on a need basis.

Missing out on holding of funeral

The holding of funerals or memorial services often give closure and have psychological benefits to the family members. However, if you choose to donate your body to science, your family members might be deprived of this depending on situations that warrant immediate donation. Also, this does not entirely rule out the option of holding a memorial service or funeral. It is just that they might need to do it in the absence of the body of the person who has passed away.

Some other frequently asked questions –

Is my religion against the donation of the body?

No. Most religions don’t prohibit the donation of the body. It is also widely supported among the general population. However, it would be wise to talk to your local parish priest or other religious advisers for specific instructions if you are still unsure.

Will I or my next-of-kin be paid anything if I donate my body to science?

Donating your body to science is governed in the United States by the ‘Uniform Anatomical Gift Act’. And as such federal laws prohibit any payment in lieu of body donations.

If I have enrolled for organ donation, can I still register for whole body donation?

Each donor program’s specifics vary, and it is best to clarify these things at the time of enrollment. However, as a general rule of thumb, persons who have enrolled for organ donation is again not accepted for whole body donation programs. Nonetheless, there is no restriction on donating your eyes.

How to donate my body to science through a declaration of donation through my driver’s license?

A driver’s license is only used to indicate whether you’re willing for your organs to be donated upon your death. To contribute your whole body, registration with a donor program is essential.

Why do organisations decline to accept bodies even after pre-registration?

In some cases, the person’s body becomes ineligible post enrollment into a donor program such as extreme obesity, death due to contagious diseases etc. In these situations, the bodies may not be accepted, and hence it is critical to have a backup plan.

Why are bodies that have undergone a post-mortem not accepted in medical schools?

Most medical schools use donor bodies to teach medical students about human anatomy. And for this purpose, the bodies have to be embalmed in order to preserve them. However, post mortem leaves open wounds, which become an obstacle in the embalming process. Some universities undertake a vascular embalming process, which means that this process’s fluid use is forced into the donor’s circulatory system. But the open wounds would lead to leakage of the fluid, and hence preservation becomes impossible. The same reason remains for people who have had surgery and injuries which have not yet healed at the time of death.

Why is dissection an essential part of medical study?

Medical schools primarily accept donor bodies to teach students human anatomy. Even with modern technology and human-like models, it is vital that students learn the human anatomy by the sense of touch and learn the variation in human anatomy from person to person, which would enable them to determine safe zones to dissect in case of future live surgeries.

What happens to bodies that are accepted in medical schools?

The exact method of treating donor bodies after being used to teach students varies with each medical school. However, in general, there are two services – committal service and memorial service. In committal service, students pay their respects to the donors at the end of the academic year in the dissection room. The memorial service is held afterwards wherein the families of the donors are invited, and students and staff may read poems or tributes to the donors and talk to the next-of-kin of the donors.

Why are donors discriminated against on the basis of HIV?

Donors are not discriminated against on the basis of HIV or any other disease for that matter. When donating to medical schools for anatomical dissection, students would be practising on the bodies of the donors. It is a requirement that dissection is carried out, ensuring the safety of students. Some pathogens and contagious diseases causing bacteria and viruses live within the body of the donors even after their death. Hence, to prevent these organisms’ transmission to medical students, bodies of such donors are not accepted.

Is it possible to ensure or ask my body to be donated to a specific kind of research?

In general, the donor cannot specify the kind of research that the body would undergo post the donor’s death. However, suppose you have specific ailments or conditions in which research is ongoing. In that case, you may be able to donate your body to that research, provided you enrol with that organisation and specify your desire beforehand. General research organisations might work on different projects, and specific donations to these organisations may not be possible.

What is the difference between forensic research and anatomical research?

In anatomical research, the body is used to research the body’s anatomy and structure, mainly for educational purposes. This is also known as medical research due to the fact that they are conducted in medical schools to prepare future doctors for their profession. On the other hand, forensic research is used to determine how a body decomposes depending on the conditions to which it is exposed. This type of research is usually undertaken on body farms.

Where can I read more about donating my body to science?

The internet has vast resources to read from various organizations that deal with body donation programs. A few links and resources are included below. Alternatively, contacting your local funeral director can also know more details about such programs within your vicinities.

  1. List of Donor programs in the US: https://anatbd.acb.med.ufl.edu/usprograms/
  2. Organdonor.gov: https://www.organdonor.gov/about/facts-terms/donation-faqs
  3. BioGift: https://www.biogift.org/
  4. Science Care: https://www.sciencecare.com/