A new bill headed to Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk for final approval would bar medical schools in New York City from collecting bodies to be dissected or embalmed in the classroom without first obtaining a signature from the dead's spouse or family.
For more than 150 years, local hospitals have been free to claim a body for science so long as it hasn't been identified by next of kin in a matter of days—in some cases, according to a recent NY Times investigation, as little as 48 hours. And while NYC's only mortuary school and the Associated Medical Schools of New York are worried that the new regulation could dry up their supplies (the bodies of organ donors would still be fair game), bill sponsors counter that a consent requirement would respect religious wishes.
Also, as Louis C.K. points out, "Imagine being the body where the [medical student] got an F on you?"
Historically, an outsize number of unclaimed bodies turned into cadavers were, in life, poor or otherwise marginalized. The NY Times cites a 2011 paper on the ethics of cadaver supply printed in Clinical Anatomy:
...the legitimacy of using unclaimed bodies has exposed vulnerable groups to dissection without their consent. These groups have included the impoverished, the mentally ill, African Americans, slaves, and stigmatized groups during the Nazi era.
Of 4,000 bodies offered up to NYC medical schools in the last 10 years, almost 2,000 have become cadavers.
Many unclaimed NYC bodies diverted from the operating table are buried in mass graves on Hart Island, which has been under the jurisdiction of the city since 1868. There, the New York Civil Liberties Union has argued, the city also stacks the deck against grieving families. Because Hart Island is operated by the Department of Correction—inmates dig the graves—island visitors are subject to search, and guards have the right to confiscate graveside offerings that could be deemed a "security risk." Until last summer, visits were contained to a gazebo near the island's ferry dock, out of view of the graves.
Legislation before the City Council would shift the maintenance and oversight of Hart Island to the Parks Department, potentially eliminating the need for armed guards during grave visits.
"It's ghoulish to think of the prospect of inmates being trucked over to Hart Island to bury infants who have been abandoned," NYCLU attorney Christopher Dunn said at an oversight hearing on the legislation this January. "Because we have prisoners on Hart Island, we have to run it like it's a prison facility. Everything about that is wrong and Medieval."
Cuomo is expected to vote on the cadaver bill before 2017. There hasn't been any action on the Hart Island legislation since January.