What happens when you donate your body to science?

Donating your body to science is your last chance at posthumous freedom. Even after dying, you can still choose to have something done to your body that isn’t a funeral. Not only that, it’s probably going to help save some lives too.

For lack of a better (albeit strangely appropriate) expression, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There are different medical schools and associations that will benefit from a donation. There are also different uses for the deceased donor once they pass. Thanks to regulatory and governing bodies, all of the options are beneficial to science and therefore mankind. So you needn’t worry about your body or organs being used to prop up an interns desk. There is something quite cathartic about being used as a donor for research, rather than just a cadaver.

What is a body donation?

A ‘Body donation’ is the act of leaving your body to a medical organisation or school in order to benefit research or training. Body donations are incredibly valued by staff and students.

Before body donations, the only way you could learn an operation was by watching a superior surgeon perform one. Apprentices would assist them until they were thought to be good enough to have their senior assist them. Donation in England and Wales is regulated by the 2004 Human and Tissue Act. Which established the Human Tissue Authority to regulate and license the removal, storage and use of body parts and organs.Before the act, one could consent to leave their body to science orally. Which inevitably opened the floodgates of abuse and confusion.

Now consent must be stated by potential donors signing a witnessed consent form. Which states what the body will be used for, how long it can be kept (bodies can be kept indefinably or up to three years) The act allows body parts to be used in training, research and display (to educate). Previously unclaimed dead bodies were used but it is no longer allowed. UK corpses are also not allowed to be used for road safety tests or left on body farms 

Why do people donate their bodies to science?

Donating a body to science can help find answers for hereditary diseases, train surgeons and, most importantly, satisfy ones need to leave an educational legacy. It literally comes down to practicality. You wouldn’t want the mechanic fixing your car to have had never seen one in real life. It’s the same with medicine.

Other reasons include helping future generations, expressing gratitude for life or for a medical field. In some cases, it is simply to avoid a funeral or waste. The offering of financial incentives as a way to increase donor numbers or as an acknowledgement for donors is generally considered to detract from the act of donation and serve as a deterrent.

How can I donate my body to science?

For years, only medical schools accepted bodies for donation, but now private programs also accept donors. Depending on the program’s need for body donation, some programs accept donors with different specifications

The Human Tissue Authority provides information to donors about where they can donate and answers many prevalent questions related to tissue donation on their website. The Human Tissue Authority provides the links to each establishment’s information, but each establishment has its own guidelines for body donation. The HTA also provides the tools to find donation sites local to the person wishing to donate their body or tissues.

Although most establishments accept most donations, donors who have had an autopsy may be declined from a program. Certain programs also may decline bodies of donors who have died abroad.

While donating your body to science is one’s own choice, it is defiantly worth telling your nearest and dearest. It can be quite traumatic for a family to find out that not only have they lost a loved one but that the body is about to be whisked away (pretty sharpish, too) and taken to a school or other medical institution.

Note: Only bodies that have died in a hospital can be used for medical research. 

What will they do with my body?

The HTA’s rules and regulations have accounted for every aspect of the body donation. There are even precise rules and regulations on how the institution can even receive the body. For example, there must have a dedicated entrance for the deceased. Cadavers are kept in coffins but before being presented to students they are removed as they believe that this removes the human element from the research.

Most of the bodies donated to any organisation are used for scientific research and medical training. Many bodies are used to teach medical students anatomy, but they are also used to improve and create new medical technologies. Many programs that accept body donations have specific research affiliations, these can be viewed by looking at the website of each program. These can include cancer research, Alzheimer’s research and research into improving surgeries. Use of specific organs can be found here.

“The sacrifice made by our donor has made our start in the medical profession unique. It has given us the privilege to study the intricacy of the human body in astounding detail and in a real situation with a real person. The benefit of this cannot be underestimated.”

– A letter from group of Cambridge University medical students to a donors family

We’ve got some more information on organ donations, here. Or, If science isn’t your strong suit, why not have a think about more traditional methods.


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