Do we have property rights over our body parts?
Apparently not, as I and several thousand David Sedaris enthusiasts learned recently at the Peabody Opera House where he was promoting his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes for Owls.
Sedaris related that he was unable to get a surgeon to remove his lipoma (a benign fatty tumor) and give it back to him. His goal was to feed his lipoma to a deformed snapping turtle that he had become obsessed with.
I had not previously thought about retrieving my body parts after surgery but was surprised to hear Sedaris say that it was “against federal law” to return to a patient, their amputated or excised body parts.
I’ve had my appendix and my gall bladder removed and I began wishing that I had asked for them back. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have a display in my basement of my removed body parts, pickled, and with their important components labeled.
Not only would the display serve as a conversation starter but it would help visiting, budding physicians understand the three-dimensional anatomy of some very interesting body parts.
Unfortunately (or is it fortunately), I have not yet had any of my cardiac structures removed but it is common practice now for surgeons to lop off the left atrial appendage during open heart surgery in patients with atrial fibrillation. This is done in an (perhaps misguided) attempt to reduce their risk of stroke from clots which like to form in the left atrial appendage.
I look at a lot of left atrial appendages by transesophageal echocardiography (learn more about transesophageal echo via this link to the Amazon.com (this is not (entirely, unabashedly) shameless self promotion-you can’t really buy the book, it is out of print) description of my old textbook on transesophageal echocardiography) and am fascinated by their peculiar shapes.
I would really like to have a row of pickle jars containing left atrial appendices in my basement to invigorate lagging dinner parties and refine my understanding of their function or lack thereof.
Laws On Body Parts
Why would there be a federal law denying one access to one’s own body part?
It turns out there is no federal law but lots of state laws that do exactly that.
Removed body parts fall under the category of infectious waste or medical waste and their disposal is governed by a complex litany of regulations, most of which do not allow them to be given back to their original owner.
This EPA site gives a state by state breakdown of the laws governing medical waste. If you click on the Missouri link, you reach a document from the “Department of Natural Resources,” which defines “pathology wastes.” These wastes include tissues, organs, body parts and body fluids that are removed during surgery and autopsy.
David Mapow, MD has written an extensive treatise, entitled “Do People Have Ownership Over Their Body Parts And If So, Can The State Control Their Ultimate Disposition In The Interest Of Public Health And Safety?”
Mapow’s paper illuminates how far reaching this topic is. It touches on topics as diverse as abortion rights, organ transplantation, cell lines used in cancer research, religious and cultural practices and the public health versus private interests.
Interestingly, the placenta seems to be the one body part that is getting a pass in some states since some religious and cultural practices encourage either eating or venerating the placenta in various ways.
The Sedaris Solution
Sadly, those of us who would like to possess our removed body parts for sentimental or educational reasons may have to resort to what I shall term “the Sedaris solution.”
At the book signing event after one of his book tour talks, a woman introduced herself as a physician and volunteered to remove his lipoma that night in her clinic. Fortunately, the subversive procedure was successful, the patient survived and the lipoma was thrown to the deformed snapping turtle.
In the end, the snapping turtle, however, showed remarkably good taste and snubbed his nose (beak?) at the Sedaris lipoma.
If you’d like to read the story Sedaris wrote for The New Yorker that introduces the deformed snapping turtle (“Did it help, I wondered, that my favorite turtle was the one with the over-sized tumor on his head and half of his front foot missing? Did that make me a friend of the sick and suffering, or just the kind of guy who wants both ice cream and whipped cream on his pie?”) it is available for free here. It’s a great example of his style, his humour and his oddness.
In Memoriam of my gall bladder,
Addendum: Here are the opening paragraphs of Leviathan, the Sedaris New Yorker piece:
“As I grow older, I find that the people I know become crazy in one of two ways. The first is animal crazy—more specifically, dog crazy. They’re the ones who, when asked if they have children, are likely to answer, “A black lab and a sheltie-beagle mix named Tuckahoe.” Then they add—they always add—“They were rescues!”
The second way people go crazy is with their diet. My brother, Paul, for instance, has all but given up solid food, and at age forty-six eats much the way he did when he was nine months old. His nickname used to be the Rooster. Now we call him the Juicester. Everything goes into his Omega J8006: kale, carrots, celery, some kind of powder scraped off the knuckles of bees, and it all comes out dung-colored, and the texture of applesauce. He’s also taken to hanging upside down with a neti pot in his nose. “It’s for my sinuses,” he claims.
“If a vegan diet truly did cure cancer, don’t you think it would have at least made the front page of the New York Times Science section?” I ask. “Isn’t that a paper’s job, to tell you the things ‘they’ don’t want you to know?
Paul insists that apricot seeds prevent cancer but the cancer industry—Big Cancer—wants to suppress this information, and has quietly imprisoned those who have tried to enlighten us. He orders in bulk, and brought a jarful to our house at the beach, the Sea Section, in late May of last year. They’re horribly bitter, these things, and leave a definite aftertaste. “Jesus, that’s rough,” my father said, after mistaking one for an almond. “How many do you have in a day?”
Paul said four; any more could be dangerous, since they have cyanide in them. Then he juiced what I think was a tennis ball mixed with beets and four-leaf clovers.”