Commentary

Big, Inspired Student Body Just One Reason for Plethora of Cadavers

By David E. Harrington
This article appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on April 4, 2007.

Unlike most other medical schools, Ohio State University’s requires people donating their bodies to pay for shipping — both for delivering their bodies to OSU and for returning their ashes to families.

A recent Dispatch article quoted a potential donor and the director of a rival program who argued that it is wrong to charge families making such generous gifts. The coordinator of the OSU program defended the policy, placing blame on rising prices and fixed budgets.

But the real reason is that OSU doesn’t need to pay for shipping to get the bodies its wants, so it doesn’t. The amount it needs to pay is determined by the demand for and supply of bodies.

Many medical schools have more donated bodies than slabs in their anatomy labs. Other schools have to scramble to find cadavers. The reason for the variation seems obvious: while OSU, UCLA and University of Florida alumni line up to join the ultimate fan club, graduates of lesser powerhouses don’t. Indeed, this year ought to produce a bumper crop of Buckeyes, given the performance of the football and basketball teams. Think about it this way: The price of a ticket to the OSU anatomy lab is the cost of shipping your body, which is a bargain compared with spending $6,000 to be courtside in Atlanta. And, in the anatomy lab, you’re part of the action!

But this is not the only reason why some medical schools are awash in donated bodies. As any student who has taken Econ 200 at OSU will tell you, a fundamental principle of economics is that consumer choices depend on the prices of alternatives. This implies that body-donation rates should be higher in states where funeral prices are high, because all medical schools pay for cremating donated bodies. Saving money on funerals is important to some donors, say people who are familiar with the body-donation process. For example, Don Kincaid, director of body donations at Ohio University, said that “some people donate their bodies to help science; others don’t want to or cannot pay for funerals.”

Funerals are unusually expensive in Ohio because of anti-competitive regulations. Ohio requires more years of training for funeral directors than any other state, which reduces the supply of funeral directors, raises their wages and increases the cost of funerals. Ohio also requires every funeral home to have extensive facilities, which further impedes the entry of low-cost competitors.

Not surprisingly, the Economic Census finds that the average cost of funerals in Ohio is $5,688, compared with the national average of $4,789. And there is evidence that differences in funeral prices caused by stringent regulations do influence decisions about donating bodies.

A recent study of body-donation rates in 21 states indicated that substantially more bodies are donated in states that have stringent regulations, such as Ohio’s.

Medical schools in areas where funerals are expensive and those in universities with successful sports programs have found themselves with a surplus of bodies. The excess has been handled in a variety of ways. Some medical schools work with less prestigious schools, funneling bodies to where they are needed. Can you imagine? University of Michigan fans might end up in the anatomy labs of cross-state rival Michigan State University.

Excess bodies have also been diverted, often illegally, to medical-device manufacturers, plastic-surgery workshops and even military proving grounds. The former director of the body-donation program at UCLA recently was charged with conspiracy and grand theft for shipping surplus bodies to middlemen, who cut them up and sold the parts for a profit.

Another way to eliminate the surplus is to increase the cost of donating bodies, as Ohio State has done. Just like seats in the Ohio Stadium, anatomy slabs are a resource that can be allocated most efficiently via price. In particular, raising the price of donating bodies allocates the anatomy slabs to those who want them most: diehard Buckeye fans.

Other potential donors are steered elsewhere by the higher price, eliminating the need for “under-the-slab” transfers between schools and reducing the likelihood of body-snatching scandals.

However, a better way of reducing the surplus of donated bodies would be to reform Ohio’s funeral regulations, which are picking the pockets of grieving families and inducing some of the most vulnerable among us to choose body donation rather than funerals.

In the meantime, Ohio State is doing the right thing to charge donors rather than to engage in the unseemly and sometimes illegal practices that are found at other schools.

David E. Harrington is the Himmelright professor of economics at Kenyon College and a visiting professor of economics at Ohio State University, where he teaches Econ 200. The results of his research, with Edward A. Sayre, appeared in the winter 2006 issue of the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.