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The scandal at the Harvard morgue is not a reason for more government

The body donation system needs better regulation. There are better ways to provide it than bringing in the feds.

Harvard Medical School.Hattanas Kumchai/Photographer: Hattanas Kumchai/M

As academic scandals go, the one at the Harvard Medical School morgue is about as ghoulish as they get.

Federal authorities in recent weeks identified six participants in an alleged conspiracy to steal, sell, and transport human body parts that had been donated to the school for research and study. According to prosecutors, the morgue’s former manager, Cedric Lodge, had for years been diverting human remains that were supposed to be respectfully cremated, selling them to people who traffic in macabre bodily “oddities,” such as skulls, faces, internal organs, or the corpses of stillborn babies. At times, the indictment said, he invited buyers into the Harvard morgue so they could “examine cadavers to choose what to purchase.” Some defendants are accused of committing similar crimes at a mortuary in Little Rock used by the University of Arkansas.


Harvard fired Lodge in May when it learned of what it calls his “abhorrent betrayal.” The school reportedly knew nothing of Lodge’s activities until it was alerted by the FBI. In the words of the US Attorney’s office, Harvard was “also a victim” of the alleged traffickers.

Nevertheless, Harvard bears at least some of the responsibility for its shoddy oversight of the medical school morgue and its manager. Other medical schools are more conscientious about supervising their morgues and keep careful tabs on anatomical donations used in classrooms and laboratories.

Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, for example, has established multiple layers of oversight to ensure the proper treatment of donated bodies. As the Globe’s Felice Freyer reported, the policy at Dartmouth is for two staff members and a faculty member to certify that each body has been properly reassembled after dissection, and staffers undertake a final check before cremation. At the Stryker School of Medicine at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, donors’ remains are monitored via a high-tech chain-of-custody system, which uses software and QR codes to ensure that all body parts are reunited before final disposition. The Harvard scandal is in part the result of Harvard’s own failure to hold itself to similarly high standards.


But in some quarters, the reaction has been to blame not a lack of diligence by Harvard but a lack of regulation by the government.

“Medical school morgues . . . face no state oversight in Massachusetts,” WBUR reported the day after the federal indictments were announced. “It appears no greater authority outside the schools monitors their procedures for keeping bodies secure.” The American Association of Anatomy issued a statement of “strong condemnation” for what happened at Harvard and “call[ed] upon government and law enforcement agencies . . . to prevent the misuse and commodification of human body donors.” NBC News quoted Thomas Champney, a lecturer on bioethics at the University of Miami: “What I really want from the federal government is basic enforcement on the handling” of donated bodies, Champney said.

Hold on, though: Why the government? It’s not as if Washington is always scrupulous about keeping tabs on its own valuable assets. Is there any reason to think the government would do a better job of monitoring the donation, handling, and final disposal of bodies donated for teaching purposes than the universities themselves?


The nation’s medical schools know it is imperative for them to quickly restore public confidence in the body donation system. Harvard’s scandal has called attention to something that wasn’t previously on their radar screen: the need to ensure uniform, high-quality oversight at all academic morgues. They have more of an incentive to get this right, and to get it right promptly, than any government agency ever will. We should let them do so.

It is a popular but unfortunate belief that the best solution to every problem in society, major or minor, is likely to come from government. Of course regulation is an important function in a well-run nation; no one would deny the need for prudent government oversight in keeping the environment clean, food and drugs safe, the financial and banking system stable, and elections trustworthy. The regulatory state we live under, however, is anything but prudent. Tens of thousands of pages are added annually to the Federal Register, the government’s compendium of rules governing everything from the angling of ladders in an apple orchard to the volume of water toilets may flush to the maximum allowable diameter of a frozen cherry tart.

Overregulation is not cost-free. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation calculates its toll at $1.9 trillion each year in added expenses and lost productivity. Even worse is the toll government regulation exacts in lost freedom. According to the most recent Human Freedom Index, which tabulates economic and personal liberty around the world, the United States now ranks just 23rd.


It is a mistake to think that “regulation” must be a synonym for “government.” Some of the nation’s most trusted regulatory agencies operate in the private sector. A renowned example is UL Solutions (formerly Underwriters Laboratories), which tests, inspects, and certifies electrical products and materials for safety. Other nongovernmental regulators include Better Business Bureaus, credit-rating firms like Moody’s and Fitch, kosher-food certifiers, and the Good Housekeeping testing labs.

What happened at the Harvard morgue suggests the need for a better system to protect and keep track of bodies donated for medical science. The American Association of Tissue Banks has one. The organization has already established an accreditation program to certify institutions that adhere to the highest standards for accepting human body donations. It offers accreditation to hospitals and medical schools “that desire a higher level of scrutiny from an outside organization, and in turn, increased transparency and public trust.”

To date, only a handful of facilities have been certified by the association. That should certainly change now. Harvard and its peers have every motivation to quickly institute the improvements necessary to qualify for accreditation and regain the “transparency and public trust” undermined by recent developments. Sometimes there is no alternative to government regulation, but this isn’t such a case. The scandal at Harvard’s morgue was ghoulish indeed. But there is no reason to think it was caused by insufficient government. There’s even less reason to treat it as an excuse for enlarging the regulatory state.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit