A disembodied leg might help device manufacturers develop minimally invasive coronary bypass techniques. Brain tissue advances Alzheimer’s research. Skin is the only body part a pharmaceutical company conducting research for a new topical drug might need. “We don’t want anything to go to waste,” says Brent Bardsley, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Anatomic Gift Foundation, a nonprofit whole-body donation program in Hanover, Md.
Selling body parts is mostly illegal in the United States. The Anatomic Gift Foundation and the dozen or so other nonprofit and for-profit ventures that have sprung up in the last decades say they don’t trade in cadavers; they offer procurement services. If there’s a whiff of the body snatcher in this, there is also the strangeness that comes with the creation of an industry. According to Michel Anteby, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, the moral legitimacy of a new market can come as much from how you sell something as from exactly what you’re selling.
Other once-suspect trades have become mainstream—we now readily buy life insurance and sperm. Scholarly accounts of this kind of gradual market legitimization mostly have focused on conformity: New ventures conform to societal ideals, or prior models, or customer demands. Focusing on New York state’s commerce in cadavers in 2007, Anteby found that cadaver entrepreneurs are attempting to create moral legitimacy in a vacuum. They follow no precedent, and their customers “are not vocal or strong enough, not to mention often alive, to defend the ventures.”
Instead, the ventures try to deflect accusations of illegitimacy or immorality by emphasizing the moral approach to their practices. “In the same way that food can be deemed halal or kosher because it was prepared in a different way, the programs are trying to make arguments around the morality of their pursuit based on how they treat the deceased,” says Anteby. “‘How we operate makes us more moral than you.’”
At Research for Life, a for-profit company based in Chandler, Ariz., CEO Garland Shreves considers it his mission to raise the standard of service in the industry. Unlike the traditional whole-body donation programs at medical schools, Shreves says, his company answers the phone day or night, will never reject a donation his company promised to take, and offers free spiritual counseling to the family of the deceased.
Shreves’s good practices, however, don’t guarantee a moral cadaver industry. The flipside, Anteby says, is that “if I know how you operate and what makes something moral, I can import your practice and claim morality.” After all, any pioneering social entrepreneur can anticipate the benefits of a new venture—be it fair trade or microcredit to the poor—but “there might be a danger in creating precedent in a market that’s not yet completely legitimate and then opening it up to other players who might have very different goals and motives,” says Anteby. “You’re legitimizing not only your market, but the market more broadly.”