A special report by Reuters details (here) how a journalist was able to buy a spine and two human heads after exchanging just a few emails with a representative of the non-profit organization Restore Life USA of Elizabethton, Tennessee. After learning of a death in the Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina areas, the company approaches certain families with a "free" offer to pick up the body, cremate any parts not destined for sale for medical research purposes, and then return the ashes to the family.
In the Reuters case, the purchased spine belonged to a 24-year old male who had struggled with kidney and heart problems his entire life. His family was too poor to afford a burial or cremation, so the offer from Restore Life had great appeal.
The "donation" cost the family nothing (financially). The purchase by Reuters apparently required just a few email exchanges and $300, plus shipping. Here is an excerpt from the special report:
Whether Restore Life vetted the buyer is unclear. But if workers there had verified their customer’s identity, they would have learned he was a reporter from Reuters. The news agency was seeking to determine how easy it might be to buy human body parts and whether those parts would be useful for medical research. In addition to the spine, Reuters later purchased two human heads from Restore Life, each priced at $300.
The transactions demonstrate the startling ease with which human body parts may be bought and sold in the United States. Neither the sales nor the shipments violated any laws, say lawyers, professors and government officials who follow the issue closely. Although it’s illegal to sell organs used for transplants, it’s perfectly legal in most states to sell body parts that were donated for research or education. Buying wine over the Internet is arguably more tightly controlled, generally requiring at minimum proof of age.
To comply with legal, ethical and safety considerations before the purchases, Reuters consulted with Angela McArthur, who directs the body donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She took immediate custody of the spine and heads for Reuters, inspecting and storing them at the medical school. * * *
[The family of the cremated 24-year old] said they believed this meant that Restore Life would merely remove small skin samples from Cody for medical research, cremate him and then return his ashes. The Restore Life consent form for Cody didn’t disclose that a donated body may be dismembered, as consent forms of most other brokers do.
Incidentally, according to Restore Life's publicly available tax returns, Mr. Byrd recently received annual compensation of $116,000 last year. In the same geographic area of Tennessee, the median income is $30,000 per household.
The full Reuters article is available here.