Laurie Toby Edison

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You’re Not Good Enough … And Neither Will Your Corpse Be

Debbie says:

(If reading about dead bodies is hard for you, skip this one.)

For reasons that are neither especially morbid nor related to my current health, I was looking last night at a service called MedCure, which arranges autopsies, uses cadavers for medical research, and cremates after they’re done, all for free. (Frequent commenter Lisa Hirsch pointed out to me in conversation that autopsies are less and less common, due in large part to budgetary concerns, and that much useful knowledge is being lost.)

I clicked on the common questions, and got to “who cannot donate,” and here it is:

Suitable donors are U.S. Citizens free of an infectious disease or condition such as Hepatitis B or C, HIV/AIDS, active tuberculosis, history of illegal drug use, incarceration or severely under or overweight at the time of death.

The infectious disease issues seem straightforward enough. I can imagine that useful knowledge could be gained from cadavers of people who had HIV, hepatitis, or active tuberculosis, but I can also imagine risks and expensive extra precautions.

History of illegal drug use? Of course, it depends on what that means. I’m very close to 60 and I would conservatively guess that at least 80% of my age cohort in this country (including me), not to mention younger people, have some kind of history of illegal drug use, maybe thirty years ago and maybe last week. I imagine that they mean “certain illegal drugs used recently” or they wouldn’t get much resource material.

History of incarceration? Well, again that’s me, if you count a half-day in a cell after a political protest some forty years ago. It’s also way more common in my age cohort and younger than it was in my mother’s generation. Other than that, I can’t make any sense of this one. Some incarceration correlates with illegal drug use, of course. Some correlates with tax fraud. Mostly, it correlates with race, ethnicity, and class: could they really be trying to get mostly white middle-class corpses and using this way of saying it? Seems unlikely, but you never know.

And then, “severely overweight or underweight at time of death.” Well, first of all, a great many people are severely underweight at time of death, because many dying people stop eating. Comparatively few are severely overweight at time of death for the same reason, but it certainly happens. What does “severely” mean? By the ridiculous BMI charts, I’m noticeably more than 100 pounds “overweight,” but I’m active and healthy and not on the medications overweight people are presumed to take (blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin/blood sugar management). If the cost of transporting my corpse is the issue, I weigh roughly as much as an average pro football player, and a good deal less than an average offensive tackle, and I’m sure that MedCure would take those bodies.

I’m writing to them to ask what their issues are with underweight, overweight, and incarcerated. I’ll let you know what they say. But in advance of hearing from them, I can make a prediction: I suspect their reasons will have a slight medical overlay, but it will be easy to see that they are kneejerk social preconceptions disguised as science.

Let’s see if I’m right.

14 Responses to “You’re Not Good Enough … And Neither Will Your Corpse Be”

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    > I’m very close to 60%

    Uh-oh! You looked like 100% of yourself last time I saw you….

  2. Debbie Says:

    Fixed, thanks!

  3. Ursula Says:

    I don’t read this as “free of … history of … incarceration”, but as “free of … incarceration”, meaning that being in jail at the time of death makes you not suitable for donating your body to MedCure.

    Regarding the “overweight” issue I fully agree.

  4. Elizabeth Fox Says:

    I can’t find a cite for this by googling, but my recollection of medical jargon is that “history of” in medical terms means something like “long term occurrence of” rather than “has occurred in the patient’s past at some time”. That is, they’re excluding people who’ve used drugs or been incarcerated for a long time. I’m curious why, though, also.

  5. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    I’ve heard that there’s a serious problem with autopsies not getting done in the US– which means, among other things, that a fat person’s death is apt to be attributed to heart disease on no evidence.

  6. lilacsigil Says:

    How very odd – you’d think that they’d very much want people of all body types. There’s no such restrictions on body donation to the two universities in my state of Australia, at any rate. In fact, they are so thrilled to get bodies that they pay for your burial or cremation!

  7. Lizzy L Says:

    Interesting — I wonder if you’ll get a boilerplate answer.

  8. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    I almost certainly read about this subject in the NY Times, but a web search on the term “decline in autopsy rates” retrieved as the most relevant results mostly medical journal articles – extremely interesting stuff for anyone with the time to read up on it.

  9. Gipsieee Says:

    My suspicion is that the non-interest in cadavers of people who have been incarcerated is related to the relatively high risk of HIV infection/AIDS in populations who have spent time in prison.

    http://img.thebody.com/legacyAssets/37/72/incarcerated.pdf

  10. Debbie Says:

    Ursula, I looked at it pretty carefully, and I think it’s “free of history of illegal drug use or incarceration,” but I admit it’s ambiguous. And even if it does mean “currently incarcerated,” why should that in itself be a limitation?

    Lisa, I looked for citations on autopsies, but all the ones I could find easily were very old (like 15-20 years old). I would have included one if I’d found one that was five years old or less.

    Gipsieee, the problem with that theory is that they specifically exclude HIV/AIDS separately, so if that was the issue, they wouldn’t need to include incarceration.

    Everybody else, thanks for the comments. No replies yet from MedCure.

  11. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    Start with this NY Times column from 2009 and follow the links.

  12. Valere Says:

    I did respond on behalf of MedCure and you deleted my response which I consider rude based on the fact you continue to promote that we have not responded to your request for information yet. You are welcome to contact me personally by email or phone.

  13. Debbie Says:

    Valere,

    We have not received a response from you either on the blog or personally, except this one. We have not deleted anything. I will email you separately tonight or tomorrow.

    FYI, we don’t “continue to promote” anything–the unedited blog post is still up, that’s all. I look forward to finding out your response.

  14. valere Says:

    My apologies! I had prepared a response and submitted it and I saw it post when I refreshed the site then it disappeared. I’m sorry I assumed it was deleted.

    My number is 866-560-2525, I’m here M-F 7:30 to 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time or valere@medcure.org.

    Best,
    V

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