Are these legal limits on what can be done with a beating heart cadaver, where the person is an organ donor? I was thinking of the case of the recent pig kidney transplant, where they performed a transplant and observed the cadaver for 74 hours. Although that's not what most of us are imagining when we check the organ donor box, it doesn't feel ethically or legally controversial to me. But one can imagine more drawn-out situations, or different things a scientist might want to do with a brain-dead body. I don't want to be overly grim, but history provides Mengele as an example of what a curious scientist might talk himself into doing.

For the sake of scope, I'll ask the question for the United States, at the federal level (though answers pertaining to other jurisdictions would be welcome as well, for sake of comparison).


2 Answers 2


Organ donation is different from body donation

With the former, you give permission for your organs and tissues to be harvested and used for medical procedures on other people. With the latter, you give permission for your body to be used for scientific experiments or for the education of trainee doctors.

If you are an organ donor but not a body doner, they won’t do experiments on your cadaver.


Federal law is negligible in the US: the Nation Organ Transplant Act simply sets up an interstate bureaucracy to facilitate procurement and transfer of organs for transplant, and the only prohibition is against transfer of human organs for consideration (something valuable), if the transaction "affects interstate commerce". Otherwise, this is a matter of state law.

In Washington, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act governs "anatomical gifts", which is

donation of all or part of a human body to take effect after the donor's death for the purpose of transplantation, therapy, research, or education

The pig kidney transplant is an example of a legally-allowed use of a body under the law. It does not matter whether they are keeping the heart beating, since the person is dead – there is no "unless they keep the heart beating" exception.

The donor can attach any conditions they want to their gift, for example they can specify "only for transplant", or "not for transplant". The law includes a hierarchical dispositions in case the gift is not crystal clear as to who gets what, thus organ transplant and eye / tissue bank has highest priority, and there are provisions whereby you can donate to a specific beneficiary for transplant, but if that use is not possible, then the stuff goes to the appropriate bank, or can if not suitable for transplant be used for research or education.

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