Business Makes $27 Million Selling Donated Bodies on the Open Market

An Arizona company makes enormous profits selling body parts from bodies donated to science

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t associate a brand called Science Care with the human cadaver trade. However, that’s exactly what the Phoenix, Arizona-based company deals with, as it is perhaps the country’s most well-known company that legally profits off the sale of cadavers and body parts of people who have died.

Companies like Science Care make their money from selling human bodies and body parts that were donated to science. However, there is one important distinction to make when discussing this kind of endeavor: the difference between body donation and organ donation.

Medical scientists operating on a cadaver

Credit: research.sciencecare.com

The main distinction is the term transplant. Legal organ donation allows surgeons to transplant organs from the recently deceased into a living person’s body to save or improve their life. Same goes for tendon and bone transplants. Organ donation and tendon/bone harvesting are regulated by the government. The sale of organs and body parts for transplantation, however, is illegal.

Yet it is legal for companies to dissect donated bodies. And they can legally sell or even lease those bodies and/or body parts to other enterprises for scientific study.

In 2016, Science Care received roughly 5,000 donated bodies, according to a recent Reuters report. (Donors in this case are people who agree to donate their bodies for scientific research before they die.) From 2011 to 2015, the company acquired more than 17,000 bodies, and sold or leased greater than 51,500 body parts.

Science Care is a pioneer of the cadaver-to-science industry. Founder Jim Rogers started the company in 2000 with the goal of making as much money as possible from the sale of human cadavers that were donated to science. And he wanted to provide customers with the same quality of bodies and parts no matter where the “product” was sent. Oddly enough, in doing so he took a page from the playbook of McDonald’s Corp.

“[Rogers] used the McDonald’s analogy that no matter where you go, you get the exact same thing,” said former executive quality assurance director John Cover in a 2009 sworn statement.

Built On Relationships”

When Rogers founded Science Care in 2000, he had been selling funeral insurance plans. He also acquired an MBA around the same time. Rogers’ initial business plan came about when he realized that potential donors needed a better way to connect with medical researchers.

During a trade-secrets case from 2010, Rogers testified that donor solicitation is “the front end” of the business. Science Care sought out companies that served the dead and dying to establish a continuous stream of body donors.Man and woman shaking hands symbolizing a newly formed agreement and/or business relationship

“It’s very much built on relationships,” Rogers testified. “When I started Science Care in 2000, [I] was figuring out which funeral homes and which hospices and which social workers and which clergy member in an office down a hallway in some big hospital would be receptive to our message,” according to the Reuters report.

Science Care works with hospices and nursing homes, and has also negotiated “collaborative referral” deals with funeral homes. This means the company can choose donates bodies (the right of first refusal) ahead of other brokers. In exchange, morticians receive cross-marketing and sales opportunities promoted by Science Care. For instance, morticians can promote free cremation on their websites, as Science Care offers this service to donors. The company then reimburses the funeral homes for each body, with rates ranging from $180 – $1,430, according to the Reuters report.

Marketing Is Key

Science Care spent more than $1 million on marketing and branding to attract donors in its first 10 years. According to Rogers, they don’t sell a product; they sell a service. And they act more as facilitators, educating people to enable them to make their own decisions.

There are two methods Science Care will usually employ when proposing its services to potential donors. First is almost always the altruistic pitch.  They say the donor will be helping to advance medical science, and those in need will benefit from the lessons gleaned from studying the donor’s cadaver.

The second “selling” point is financial. Traditional funerals are expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral can cost upwards of $7,000. A simple cremation, between $400-$1,000. “Body brokers,” as they’re called, offer a cheaper option: free cremation in exchange for the body.

Reliability and consistency of human body parts were the basis upon which Rogers wanted to build the brand. He wanted to create a corporate culture that placed immense weight on the fine details. Even packaging material was not left to chance. There were “ten different…procedures for building a box” so that body parts would arrive without damage, Rogers testified.

Science Care became the first body broker to be accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks in 2003. In a statement to Reuters, Rogers said,” the pursuit of a clear, robust accreditation system…helped bring transparency and accountability to the industry.”

This accreditation served to be key to the company’s growth, and it’s a great marketing tool. It’s a superb way to showcase that the company is trustworthy, as the accreditation process is very precise. Science Care displays the tissue bank’s approval seal on advertising and sales documents.

A Blurry Line

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Science Care’s public accounts and sworn, under-oath statements from executives during the trade-secret case stand at odds with each other. Publicly, the company has asserted that it only sells its services, not individual body parts. During the trade-secret case, however, executives testified that “body parts were priced as high as the market would allow.”

Medical school room in which students are working on cadavers, symbolizing what donated bodies are done with after death.

Credit: longroom.com

Science Care routinely tells donors and customers that it is “paid merely to acquire, store, dissect, prepare and transport body parts,” according to Reuters. Last year the brand won exemption from sales tax in Indiana and Illinois via its argument that they only sell a service, not products. Essentially, the company said that the costs of body preparation, not by supply-and-demand metrics, determines the prices it charges customers.

But, under oath in the trade-secrets case, former Science Care President Greg Martenson said, “[Body parts] were determined by supply and demand…We would use that information to set the prices.”

During the trade-secret testimony, Rogers said their method for pricing the bodies they sold was like playing “poker.” “There was no rhyme, reason or consistency,” he testified, regarding body pricing. In his statement to Reuters, however, Rogers said, “Science Care has always been chiefly motivated by compliance and quality service, not by price.”

Donated Bodies Are Big Business

The fact of the matter is that business is booming. Science Care has managed to turn donated bodies into roughly $27 million in annual sales, according to a 2017 government filing. This number also includes money earned from medical training seminars, which they host to enable doctors to train on donated bodies. According to IRS audits and court documents, Rogers and his co-owner/wife Josie earned roughly $12.5 million between 2012-2014.

They sold the company last year to Northlane Capital Partners for an undisclosed amount of money. There was one interesting asset though: pledges from over 100,000 people to donate their bodies to Science Care when they die.

The whole issue of selling cadavers and body parts for science is a murky one. Some documents that Science Care distributes to customers state that it is illegal to buy or sell body parts, citing the National Organ Transplant Act. But again, this is only referencing body parts for transplanting. The selling of whole cadavers or non-transplant body parts is not illegal under most state laws.

The cadaver and body-part industry sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. But with companies like Science Care making millions of dollars a year in that very industry, it’s something that is very real. Though initially meant for the evolution of medical science, it has become a very lucrative endeavor for certain individuals. Truth, indeed, can be stranger than fiction.

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