Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

When a person dies, state law allows the medical examiner's office to determine that it is unlikely that the body will be identified or a relative notified within four hours of the death. When that's the situation, morgue workers can legally remove anything, from bones to brain matter, without approval from next of kin.

U. Lawrence Boze, the lawyer for the Arnic family, planned to challenge the constitutionality of the statute in a suit against the medical examiner's office and the Transplantation Research Foundation. But a visiting judge ruled they could not be sued. Boze believes black cadavers -- Arnic was African-American -- have historically provided the county's main harvest for tissue and organs. Boze knows of a case where an African-American woman suffering from appendicitis ended up at a funeral home with postmortem stitches nowhere near her appendix.

Houston's unresolved legacy of body snatching poses dicey issues. Many ethicists note that harvesting or preserving unclaimed bodies is unacceptable because it violates the tenets of several religions, from the beliefs of Native Americans to Orthodox Judaism.

David Terrill

Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.
Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.

Ironically, though, the issue is also marked by deep concern, even valor. The experiments at M.D. Anderson and Baylor contributed to a body of information about flying conditions that would later help the United States put astronauts on the moon and keep its soldiers safe. Project Sunshine's results were yet more dramatic.

"In 1957," Sunshine researcher Laurence Kulp recalled recently, "Willard Libby testified before Congress that children were absorbing strontium 90 at an alarming rate and that their bone radioactivity levels might rise to dangerous levels. Our tests on stillborns and children were the basis on which the nations of the world agreed not to do any more atomic testing in the atmosphere. Our data helped lead to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963."

"Did Project Sunshine raise moral or ethical issues?" Kulp asks rhetorically. "People today don't understand. What we did was purely humanitarian."

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