How to Donate Your Body to Science

Thinking about donating your body to science? Here are some tips on how and why you should do it.

Start by looking for an accredited tissue bank, said Donna Goyette, director of community relations for Science Care, a nationally accredited tissue bank.

Accredited organizations can be found through the American Association of Tissue Banks, which sets the ethical guidelines for the recovery of body cells and tissues in a way that respects the donor’s and the family’s wishes.

The AATB also sets guidelines on the treatment of tissue and provides accreditation to tissue harvesters that follow its guidelines.

Currently, there are no legally mandated standards that tissue banks must meet, and accreditation is not required. The federal government recently pledged better oversight of tissue harvesters, however.

Goyette said donors should look for organizations that go the extra mile to obtain accreditation.

"In our opinion, whole body donation is a gift," she said. "I think if I were donating, I'd want to make sure standards were in place, just like with organ donation. For us, we want people to know that we're taking the extra steps to show the great things that we're doing."

To register with Science Care, would-be donors simply need to call up. Information will then be mailed to the potential donor.

"We might ask some medical questions, but we don't need a complete medical history," Goyette said. "There are some consent forms to fill out, just like with organ donation. And then you get a donor card. It's a fairly simple process."

People with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and syphilis cannot donate their bodies to science.

Goyette notes that people can and should consider being both organ and full body donors.

Asking Questions

Goyette said donors should ask questions of the tissue banks they register with, such as: How much will donation cost? Will my family get the body back after the tissue is harvested? And, what will my tissue by used for?

"At Science Care, we pay for everything including transportation and cremation," Goyette said. "We also try to return the ashes to the family within three to five weeks because we know, to most families, it's really important to get the ashes back."

Because tissue-harvesting is disfiguring, donors and their families must be comfortable with cremation being the only option of receiving the remains of the deceased.

Why Body Donation is Important

"There is a major shortage of human tissue in this country," Goyette said. "If we want to advance medicine and if we want cures for cancer and neurological disorders, we can't do that using plastic or synthetic materials, you need human tissue. If we tripled the amount of bodies we received, we still wouldn't have enough tissue to satisfy all of the requests we get."

Tissue is also needed to give surgeons real-life operating experience and to offer training to firefighters and paramedics.

"Firefighters are not doctors, and yet they have to intubate people on the job to help them breathe," Goyette said. "Without tissue donation, you can't properly train them to do that. You can't intubate a mannequin to prepare for a real life situation."