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A Market for Cadavers

Society has legitimate research needs for human cadavers. Scientists use them for studying disease. Medical students and emergency workers use bodies or parts of bodies for training.

But there are so many taboos around the selling of human bodies, not to mention laws, that we suffer a cadaver shortage. Normally, capitalism would encourage providers to step forward and fill this demand with offerings based on prices established by a market. But we as a society are understandably squeamish about the idea of anatomical parts as commodities.

Not that some businesses aren't trying. A few entrepreneurial ventures have started up over the last decade to meet the need, acting as matchmakers between donors and health care providers. But these firms are paid service fees, not prices set by a market.

Harvard Business School professor Michel Anteby, whose research dwells in moral gray zones, says that at the least we need analysis and discussion in this arena to inform political debate. As he frames the issue:

"Greater availability of cadavers for medical science could accelerate the quality of medical training and procedures -- a fact most users recognize. Nonetheless, how much trust can be put in markets to ensure these outcomes? How should a donor decide between two donation options? What are the logics of such a decision? What does competition for whole-body donations look like? How might this impact other donations? More importantly, perhaps, should programs compete for donations? All these questions require empirical examination."
Read Anteby's though-provoking piece on HBS Working Knowledge, A Market for Human Cadavers in All But Name. BTW, a post I wrote on Anteby's gray zone work was one of my most popular (and controversial.)

What do you think? Are there some places where market solutions are just inappropriate? Are we ready to think about selling Aunt Tilly's remains to the highest bidder?

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