Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Corpse Theorem

I’ve been meaning to say a couple of things about the UCLA cadaver-selling case. Jacob Sullum beat me to one of them: that part of the problem here is the legal ban on selling human body parts, which naturally just drives the market underground. Legalizing the trade would bring it aboveboard, reducing corruption while allowing heirs (including institutional heirs) to profit.

Let me take the argument a bit further. It’s clear now that the body parts illegally sold by Henry Reid, the director of UCLA’s Willed Body Program, were highly valuable. If it were possible to sell them on the legal market, UCLA would most likely have treated the bodies as assets that could either (a) be sold to increase the university’s endowment or (b) be used in the university’s medical programs. And any time the university chose option (b), the opportunity cost of the choice would have been the forgone market price of the body parts. That opportunity cost would have motivated UCLA to keep the body parts only when they were more valuable in UCLA’s programs than in alternative uses, such as corporate medical research. In other words, a legal market would have encouraged more efficient use of body parts.

Furthermore, the fact that UCLA could not legally sell the body parts, even when they had a high value elsewhere, assured the existence of a tempting opportunity for malfeasance – one that Reid capitalized on. Reid’s actions were deplorable, of course – not because he was selling body parts, but because he was selling body parts that didn’t belong to him. Still, he would have been less likely to act as he did if the black market incentive were not so great. UCLA’s authorities might also have taken greater interest in the fate of the donated bodies if those bodies had had legal monetary value.

One more observation: for people who are interested in helping their alma mater and advancing medical research, the body donors and their families are being strangely irrational about this. Consider the following passage from the CNN article:
In their lawsuit, family members said they had contracts signed by university officials, guaranteeing their loved ones' remains would "never" be sold. The plaintiffs also noted the practice violates California State law.

Shirley Williams, whose husband Richard died of a stroke two years ago, was assured by UCLA officials that her husband's remains would be used in medical research, cremated and returned to her. Instead, Williams, the lead plaintiff in the civil suit, fears his body parts were sold for profit.
Now, the donors can specify whatever conditions they want in their wills, so if they want to prohibit sale of their bodies, fine. But why impose such a silly condition? When people donate their cars to charity, they don’t generally stipulate that the car be added to the charity’s own fleet. It’s natural and expected that the car might (and probably will) be sold, so the charity can get the cash value instead. The same should go for a body. If your goal is to help UCLA’s medical program, why not let the medical program’s directors decide how best to use your donation? If they can use the body, great. But if they would get greater benefits from more centrifuges, for example, why not sell the body and use the proceeds to buy centrifuges?

And if the donors’ goal is not just to help UCLA but to advance medical research, I wonder what they think Johnson & Johnson’s doing with the bodies? By and large, it’s medical research. Even if the body ends up being used for auto safety research instead of medical research (or for some reason you think that non-profit medical research is better than for-profit medical research), it still maximizes the research value of the body to let the university sell it, because the university gets more cash to run its non-profit research program.

Here’s a more plausible argument for banning sale of the body in the will: If you want to make absolutely sure it is only UCLA’s medical program that benefits from your donation, an unmarketable body could be useful because it’s not fungible. If the body were sold, the university might allocate the proceeds to (say) the English literature program. A clause in the contract specifying that any funds from sale must go to the medical program wouldn’t prevent this, because the university could simply divert non-earmarked funds away from the medical program and into other programs. However, even this argument doesn’t quite work. If the medical program is receiving bodies, that means it is receiving assets that can substitute for funds – so the university may choose to allocate a smaller share of general funds to the medical program to compensate for the bodies’ value. Thus, if the university really wants to soak the medical program for the sake of other programs, it can almost always find a way to do so.

Bottom line: The sale of body parts should be legalized, and people donating their bodies to science should drop the no-sale clauses if they really want to maximize the value of their donations.

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