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Harvard human remains case highlights need for body donation regulations, experts say

Unlike with organ donation, few rules govern university programs or businesses that sell donated bodies, experts said.

The prosecution of a former Harvard Medical School employee over an alleged human remains theft ring prompted experts to call for federal rules for a practice that they said is largely unregulated and has grown in recent years with the rise of for-profit “body brokers."

The school’s anatomical donation program, which employed a manager accused of illegally selling body parts to a nationwide network of buyers, is like dozens of others across the country that are trying to “help advance science and education,” said Thomas Champney, a bioethics expert at the University of Miami.

But unlike with organ donation, which is closely regulated under the 1968 Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, few rules govern nonprofit programs or businesses that sell donated bodies to medical device makers, law enforcement agencies and others, said Champney, who also helps run a body donation program for Florida’s State Anatomical Board.

Cedric Lodge, former manager of the morgue at Harvard Medical School, leaves federal court in Boston, on June 14, 2023.
Cedric Lodge leaves federal court in Boston on June 14.NBC Boston

“What I really want from the federal government is basic enforcement on the handling” of bodies, he said. “Right now, if I want to do a body donation program, I don’t have to go to anybody to get a certification.”

There should also be rules requiring "revenue neutral" status and more transparency, he said. If people donate their bodies to universities, for example, no federal policies require the schools to disclose whether the bodies will be “disarticulated” — or cut up and used in different ways.

“Some may disclose it more readily than others,” he said in an email. “There are no rules, so folks do what they are ‘comfortable’ with.”        

It is not clear whether there were failures within Harvard’s program that allowed the former manager, Cedric Lodge, to allegedly steal organs and remains from the school’s morgue and sell them. 

Several other people, including Lodge's wife and an employee at an Arkansas mortuary, were also charged in the alleged scheme.

In a statement last week, Harvard Medical School said that it was “appalled” by the allegations and that it had appointed a panel of experts to review its policies and practices. 

Asked Wednesday whether any of those policies might have contributed to Lodge’s alleged crimes, a school spokesperson said it would be premature to comment before the expert report is delivered later this year.

Lawyers for Lodge did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday night.

In an email, Angela McArthur, the director of the anatomy bequest program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, described being "horrified and saddened" by allegations that she said offered many lessons.

"While some of the allegations fit into the larger issue of the commodification of the human body and lack of regulatory oversight, it’s important to note that this situation involved criminal behavior including the alleged theft of body parts for macabre purposes unrelated to medical education and research," she said. "I think a review of any current and proposed regulations is in order."

She pointed to legislation proposed in the U.S. House and Senate that would require entities that use bodies for education and research to register with the Department of Health and Human Services, among other things.

Michael Burg, a lawyer representing a group of 10 people who won a $58 million verdict against the owner of an Arizona company in 2019 over what Burg's law firm described as an “egregious body brokering scheme,” wondered how Harvard’s oversight of Lodge could have appeared so lax.

“What kind of supervision did he have?” Burg said in an interview. “This is a prominent university. There should have been supervision.”

Burg added that organ donation rules should be extended to bodies.

“If you want to take cadavers and bodies and chop them up and sell them, you don’t need a license. Anybody can do it,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

"You can't sell hearts and livers and kidneys," he added.

Martine Dunnwald, the president of the American Association of Anatomy, an industry group, said in a statement last week that the group condemns the “commercialization of human body donors and any action that violates donor ethics and trust.”

“To ensure the ethical, legal, and responsible operation of body donation programs nationwide, the AAA calls upon government and law enforcement agencies, academic institutions, and regulatory bodies for both justice and collaborative reform to prevent the misuse and commodification of human body donors,” she said.

A spokesman did not respond to interview requests seeking more detail.

Champney, a member of AAA, said the group has developed a set of guidelines for universities and other nonprofit groups that handle body donations, but he said those function as best practices and not mandated policies.