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County morgue’s plan to donate bodies to science isn’t a good idea

Updated: November 15, 2011 12:29PM

For a whole bunch of reasons, relatively few people choose to donate their bodies to science after death, which is a shame considering the good that can come of it.

But whether out of personal preference, religious belief or lack of knowledge about the option, it’s still not a popular choice to give one’s entire body to a medical school where, let’s be frank, it’s likely to be dissected.

The Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, a non-profit group authorized to procure and distribute human remains for study and research by medical institutions in this state, received only 483 usable cadavers in 2010 — despite its efforts to encourage voluntary donations.

“I could have easily placed 600,” said the association’s executive vice president, Paul Dudek, referring to the unmet demand for human remains by researchers and educators.

It’s against this backdrop that we learned Monday the Cook County medical examiner’s office has agreed to give to Dudek’s group the unclaimed bodies that until now have been buried at public expense in mass graves.

These are the people who live their lives as the poorest of the poor, the most anonymous of the nobodies among us.

Some are homeless. Some are just all alone. When they die, nobody steps forward to claim their bodies. Some of their families say they cannot afford to bury them. Some of their families cannot be found.

But now, if the bodies aren’t claimed from the medical examiner’s office in two weeks, the remains will turned over to Dudek’s group.

I can understand why somebody might have thought this would be a good idea. But it’s not.

Donating one’s body to science — or for organ donation, which is a separate matter — has rightfully been treated as a voluntary matter in this country.

And that shouldn’t change just because someone dies poor and alone.

I can understand why Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy L. Jones doesn’t see it that way. As a person of science, she sees it as an opportunity “that will save thousands of lives in the future.”

“In a perfect world, they all would be taken care of by their families,” Jones said of the bodies left in her care. “It’s not a perfect world.”

If burial had ceased to be the norm in our society, then I might be able to support that view. But until the case for scientific donation has been sold to the populace as a whole, I don’t see why the indigent should be served up in their place.

One argument would be to save money. Even the crummy public burials we have given the poor in the past cost money. But Jones said this is not an effort to save money.

To my surprise, there is a state law that requires counties to donate to science any bodies that would be buried at public expense. The law had been on the books since 1885 but wasn’t being followed until Dudek’s group discovered it and approached the medical examiner three years ago to reach an agreement. It’s taken until now to work out the details. The county could have just as easily said no and had the law repealed.

Jones emphasized that if families object to the bodies being donated to science, then they won’t be donated. But neither she nor Dudek could cite for me a process by which family members would be informed of that right.

Jones said she could not estimate how many bodies could be involved. But Dudek said Jones originally told him the county typically buries 400 indigents a year, of which he expects about 25 percent would be usable for cadaver research. That would yield 80 to 100 cadavers a year and go a long way toward clearing up his supply shortage.

It would seem to me to be a much better idea for all those big universities and teaching hospitals in line for those bodies to instead make a case to the public for why they should voluntarily donate their own.

CORRECTION: Last week’s column on Chicago being named America’s most mustache-friendly city incorrectly identified MOvember, a charity organization that challenges men to grow mustaches during November to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues. “Mo” is Australian slang for mustache.

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