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The Plain English Attorney

By Eric Schultz, Legal Intern

One part of the estate planning process that generates questions and demands careful thought on the part of the client is the “anatomical gift.” When you get or renew a driver’s license, you are generally asked whether you would like to be an “organ donor.” The DMV only presents two options, but in the more thorough version of this agreement, there are five possible choices. The first two involve directly helping someone in need, either through an organ transplant or a type of therapy that, often, implicates the use of your bone marrow. The final three are less straightforward; we explain them briefly in client meetings by noting that their selection results in the use of your body as a “cadaver in a medical school.” While this brief summation provides some general direction to those struggling with the decision, it fails to tell the whole story. What exactly happens when you decide to “donate your body to science?”

The more thorough explanation starts, paradoxically, when things come to an end. Immediately after you pass on, the medical school that has accepted your donation will likely arrange for the professional transport of your body to the school’s premises. It is important to note that not all bodies are accepted by medical schools; if, for example, an autopsy has been performed, the body is rejected and the individual’s estate is responsible for making funeral arrangements. If accepted, steps are taken to carefully prepare the body for its intended use. This generally involves an embalming process, which is necessary to prepare and preserve the body for the next school semester. It may be necessary to contact your house of worship to discuss whether this inevitability is violative of your faith.

A donation is put to use for an extended period of time (usually a semester or full school year), and generally, each student works with the same body for the duration of a given class. It’s said that medical students become genuinely attached to their subject. Students at UC-San Francisco, for example, have been known to hang posters and cards in their anatomy classrooms to commemorate the invaluable time they’ve spent learning from a given subject.

While the medical school accepting a donation will pledge that the deceased will be handled with the utmost respect, most will not guarantee that the body will be put to a specific use. A donation may wind up as the year long companion of a new medical student in anatomy lab, or the subject of a young physical therapist’s study of joint function. A budding forensic anthropologist needs a cadaver to assist in learning his craft, as does a dental student in training. While this uncertainty can be off-putting, access to a real human being unquestionably provides precious practical experience to the next generation of doctors and practitioners.

After use, the school will cremate the remains and hold a ceremony for the individuals who graciously facilitated hands-on education. Some schools will return the remains to the family if so requested, while others acknowledge up front that the nature of certain medical procedures often makes it impossible to distinguish between remains. While the family of a deceased donor can hold a ceremony to celebrate the late individual’s life, it may not be possible to have that individual’s remains present; the medical school must obtain the body quickly to prepare it for use, and some schools will not return remains because of the aforementioned difficulty in distinguishing between individuals.

The American Association of Clinical Anatomists (AACA) has established a set of rules and recommendations outlining the proper formalities to be observed in the shipping and disposal of donors, as well as regulations to ensure that each body is used solely in the manner the institution outline up-front. Many medical schools have adopted a set of guidelines that are similar or identical to these model rules.

Though this decision is, of course, an intensely personal one, it is important to remember that we all have a choice in the matter. Knowing the facts can make the decision much less mysterious. While hopefully this entry has been illuminating, I recommend contacting your local medical school to learn the details specific to that institution’s anatomical gift program.

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