By John Shiffman and Reade Levinson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters)
On July 20, a Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship departed Charleston, South Carolina carrying thousands of containers. One of them held a lucrative commodity: body parts from dozens of dead Americans
According to the manifest, the shipment bound for Europe included about 6,000 pounds of human remains valued at $67,204. To keep the merchandise from spoiling, the container’s temperature was set to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The body parts came from a Portland business called MedCure Inc. A so-called body broker, MedCure profits by dissecting the bodies of altruistic donors and sending the parts to medical training and research companies.
MedCure sells or leases about 10,000 body parts from U.S. donors annually, shipping about 20 percent of them overseas, internal corporate and manifest records show.
In addition to bulk cargo shipments to the Netherlands, where MedCure operates a distribution hub, the Oregon company has exported body parts to at least 22 other countries by plane or truck, the records show.
Among the parts: a pelvis and legs to a university in Malaysia; feet to medical device companies in Brazil and Turkey; and heads to hospitals in Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates.
Demand for body parts from America — torsos, knees and heads — is high in countries where religious traditions or laws prohibit the dissection of the dead. Unlike many developed nations, the United States largely does not regulate the sale of donated body parts, allowing entrepreneurs such as MedCure to expand exports rapidly during the last decade.
No other nation has an industry that can provide as convenient and reliable a supply of body parts
Since 2008, Reuters found, U.S. body brokers have exported parts to at least 45 countries, including Italy, Israel, Mexico, China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Whole bodies are studied at Caribbean-based medical schools. Plastic surgeons in Germany use heads from dead Americans to practice new techniques. Thousands of parts are shipped overseas annually; a precise number cannot be calculated because no agency tracks industry exports.
Most donor consent forms, including those from MedCure, authorize brokers to dissect bodies and ship parts internationally. Even so, some relatives of the dead said they did not realize that the remains of a loved one might be dismembered and sent to the far reaches of the globe.
“There are people who wouldn’t necessarily mind where the specimens were sent if they were fully informed,” said Brandi Schmitt, who directs the University of California system’s anatomical donation program. “But clearly there are plenty of donors that do mind and that don’t feel like they’re getting enough information.”
MedCure shipments are now the subject of a federal investigation. In November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the company’s Portland headquarters. Though the search warrant remains sealed, people familiar with the matter say it relates in part to overseas shipping.
MedCure is cooperating with the investigation, said its lawyer, Jeffrey Edelson. He declined to comment on the FBI raid, but said: “MedCure is committed to meeting and exceeding the highest standards in the industry. It takes very seriously its obligation to not only deliver safe specimens securely, but to do it in a way that respects the donors.”
Edelson also said MedCure “partners with government and industry agencies to follow and exceed requirements for shipping human tissue,” and that “shipping handlers, drivers and carriers are specially trained for the safe handling and transportation of human specimens.”
INFECTED PARTS AT THE BORDER
As a Reuters series last year revealed, the body donation industry is so lightly regulated in the United States that almost anyone can legally buy, sell or lease body parts.
Although no federal law expressly regulates the body trade, there is one situation in which the U.S. government does exercise oversight: when body parts leave or enter the country. Border agents have the authority to ensure that the parts are not infected with contagious diseases and are properly shipped.
This authority played a leading role in the government securing a conviction last month of Detroit broker Arthur Rathburn, who stored body parts in grisly, unsanitary conditions, according to trial testimony. The FBI began to focus intently on Rathburn’s business, International Biological Inc, after repeated border stops in which he was found ferrying human heads, court records show.
The jury found that Rathburn defrauded customers by supplying body parts infected with HIV and hepatitis.
“The fraud scheme orchestrated by IBI shocked even the most experienced of our investigative team,” said FBI special-agent-in-charge David Gelios. Even in death, Gelios said in a statement after the verdict, donors were “victimized as IBI intentionally and recklessly marketed and transported contaminated human remains… Personal greed overcame decency.”
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