A gift for mankind: donating your body to science
Written by Cindy-Marie Leicester on November 26, 2015.
As December approaches and our thoughts turn to the festive season and shopping for Christmas presents, I thought I’d have a look into an unusual gift of a different kind – leaving your body to science when you die.
For some people the thought of bequeathing their body is a cultural or religious non-starter, others may simply be too squeamish. For some however, the thought that their body could save a life once their own has come to an end is something that gives them comfort.
Donating your body to science, not to be confused with donating organs for transplant, is a complex legal process which has been tightly regulated in England and Wales since the introduction of the Human Tissue Act in 2004. The act was established as a response to the Alder Hey organ scandal of the late 1990s when it emerged that hospitals were storing organs from babies without the consent of their parents. The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) was set up to regulate and license the removal, storage and use of body parts and organs.
Since the Act was passed, trainee surgeons have been allowed to practice their skills on human cadavers before being let loose on live humans. The Royal College of Surgeons in the UK uses 100 bodies each year. Their professor of anatomy says there is no substitute as a learning tool and has expressed his gratitude saying “We are so grateful as a profession for the wonderful generosity of individuals who donate their bodies for no other reason than to benefit mankind.”
As well as being used for surgical training, cadavers are used for research purposes to improve understanding of the human body and for anatomical examination in the teaching of the structure and function of the body to students. Cambridge University medical school uses 48 cadavers a year, mostly from elderly donors in their 80s or 90s. While you might have heard macabre stories about medical students playing tricks on their fellow students with the dead bodies they are dissecting, these are urban myths. Students have to sign a code of conduct stating that they will treat a body with respect. At King’s College this extends to holding a committal service at the end of each academic year to honour the donors. Family members are invited and students may even learn a little about the person they have dissected and who has given the ultimate gift of themselves in the interests of science.
Around 600 bodies are donated each year and demand is ongoing, so if the idea of your body playing a part in finding a cure for cancer or enabling rooky surgeons to perfect their techniques appeals to you, here’s what you need to do.
First of all you will need to contact your local medical school to find out their acceptance criteria – certain medical conditions will mean refusal. You will then need to complete and sign consent forms in the presence of a witness. These will detail which body parts can be used and how long they may be stored (up to three years). Consent cannot be given by anyone else after your death so simply bequeathing your body in your will is not sufficient.
Obviously leaving your body to science is a big decision which will impact on your loved ones. In addition, time is of the essence to preserve your cadaver according to strict regulations once you have passed away. For these reasons, you should make your wishes known to your relatives and/or executors when you take the decision to donate.
After your passing, it may be two years before your ashes or remains are returned to your loved ones for burial or cremation which means that they will need to find a suitable alternative way to say goodbye and pay their respects. Another reason why, if you are thinking of donating yourself to science, the first people you need to tell are the ones who won’t be burying you!