Arthur Rathburn had been dealing cadavers for years before the FBI raided his Detroit warehouse and seized several of his specimens in December 2013. The fact that he rented out lifeless human body parts wasn't a problem, as far as the FBI was concerned: Cadaver dealing, gruesome though it may be, is not illegal. Instead, Rathburn was being investigated for knowingly renting out diseased cadavers to turn a profit. And last month, he and his estranged wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, were indicted for running a national scheme for selling these infected body parts.
According to the federal indictment: There was the head and neck, infected with Hepatitis B, that he'd rented to a dental seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in March 2011, and then again to a bone grafting seminar in San Diego a few months later. He rented out eight human heads (one infected with sepsis), packed in trash bags inside camping coolers in 2012. Later that year, he sold a cadaver infected with both Hepatitis B and HIV to an anesthesiology conference in Washington, DC, for over $55,000.
Authorities claim that Rathburn bought these diseased cadavers at discounted prices—but didn't disclose that they were diseased when he later rented them out to medical and dental training purposes, which is a "violation of industry standard sanitation practices." The indictment also claims he stored infected specimens together with non-infected ones, and used unsanitary equipment.
"Instead of using industry-standard, sterilized autopsy equipment," the indictment reads, "Arthur Rathburn used a chainsaw, band saw, and reciprocating saw to dismember bodies without taking sanitary precautions."
Body parts like the ones Rathburn dealt are regularly in demand by the medical community: Skin grafts from corpses can be used to treat burn victims, bone grafts can be used in orthopedic and oral surgery, human tissue can be incredibly useful for medical training. But the cadaver dealing industry is only very lightly regulated, which leaves room for shady operators. In 2006, 16,800 families were represented in class action lawsuits claiming body parts of family members were stolen from funeral homes, hospital morgues, and even nursing homes to be illegally sold, for profits topping $6 million.
"There's no regulatory structure in place to ensure that [securing body parts is] done in a way that's safe and ethical," said Annie Cheney, the author of Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains.
The book, which mentions Rathburn (pre-indictment), describes the strange world of cadaver dealing and the opportunities to bend the rules. Some body donation programs offer "free cremation" to consumers, and then remove a torso, or a few limbs, before placing the body in the chamber. For the few hundred dollars it costs to burn the body, they're left with a few thousand dollars in profit for the body parts. Other crematorium operators have been caught removing body parts from paying customers, and some have forged consent forms by next of kin to create a paper trail that's hard to unravel.
Medical researchers who buy the parts often don't ask where they've come from—in part because the demand for cadavers is higher than the supply of people who donate their bodies to science. "It's the kind of field where it's very easy to be sort of a 'no questions asked' situation," said Cheney.
Still, Cheney thinks the industry may be changing. When she wrote her book in 2006, she said there was very little awareness of how tissue banks operated, with the exception of New York state. "When I mentioned them to health departments they had no idea what I was talking about," she said. "Nobody could believe that they held conferences in hotels with cadavers."
Now, in addition to the ongoing case against Rathburn, the FBI has launched additional raids on body brokers in Arizona and Illinois, as well as an investigation of an Oregon medical research center, where cadavers have been used for research and training purposes.
Even with all the evidence of foul play, Cheney says it shouldn't make people squeamish about donating their bodies to science. "I think it's important, it's vital," she said. "But you have to make sure you're giving your body to a reputable institution. Read all the fine print and understand what it is you're agreeing to."
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