Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Unexpected Consequences of Becoming an Organ Donor

Do you know what happens to your body when you agree to donate it?

Key points

  • Many teenagers may be too young to decide whether to become organ donors.
  • The American public may not be sufficiently informed of the body broker industry and what happens in organ donations.
  • We need to ensure that people, especially young adults, are making informed decisions about their body's final destination.

A vignette

Julie is 16-and-a-half. She’s excited to get her first driver’s license. She has studied diligently for her driving test and is fully prepared to respond correctly to everything on it—until she gets to the question about becoming an organ donor. She stares at it for a moment, then can’t help but look up from her test. She doesn’t know what to do. She looks around desperately for her mom, who is waiting somewhere nearby in the crowded DMV.

Julie fumbles with the pencil. No one prepared her for this question. Which answer is correct?

The issue of underage decision-making

Every year, millions of teenagers less than 17 years old are asked to answer a legally binding question they know nothing about. Because the demand for donor organs and human tissue is higher than the number of donors, the laws governing the legally binding nature of these uninformed decisions increasingly favor the donor industry. But maybe we should ask ourselves: Are my children informed of the consequences of that decision? It sounds very tender and noble. It’s what every good citizen ought to do, isn’t it?

The unexpected consequences of agreeing to become a donor

Most of us (whether under or over 17) feel safe in the belief that our decision to donate our organs will result in saving a stranger’s life—so we agree to become an organ donor. But what we may not know is what really happens when our body is donated to science. A body broker makes about $3,000 to $10,000 for an entire human body. But they’re worth much more when sold piece by piece. For example, a broker can get $3,750 for the lower half, $500 for a head, and $350 for each foot. Here are some of the consequences of this market:

  • If you agreed to donate your organs, you most likely agreed to a “whole-body” donation. What does that mean? Well, the organ transplant industry is closely regulated, so you are probably safe in your assumption that your organs will be used wisely and with dignity. But the industries that buy and sell the rest of you are not regulated very well (Shapiro, 2012). Most of you is likely to end up in product development or to help desensitize medical students (a necessary part of training). An example? Your severed foot may be connected to a treadmill to develop prosthetic limbs. You probably didn’t know that.
  • Almost anyone can buy and sell pieces of dead bodies in the U.S. You probably didn’t know that either (Grow & Shiffman, 2017).
  • Some are asked to be donors under conditions of duress. For instance, the poor are often intimidated into donating their bodies to science to help cover final expenses. Many families cannot afford cremation, much less a funeral. The option of donating their beloved’s body to science offers them a way out. But in psychological research, we call this group a vulnerable population. Such groups are usually protected by federal law from being asked to decide under circumstances like these. But in the body trade industry, the vulnerable seem to be targeted by businesses that know better than to ask the well-to-do.
  • The considerable value of human body parts must be having an effect on last-minute efforts to keep dying people alive. If their organs and tissue are scarce and worth more than they are, the chances of being removed from life support prematurely must be greater than if their dead body parts had no value to science or industry. Body parts are only viable for a little while after death, and the industry is not interested in diseased or decaying tissue. So, while the donor’s tissue is still viable (alive), their organs may be harvested to save someone with a better outlook.
 Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Robbing the dead to benefit the living.
Source: Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A call for primary intervention—let us inform the children

Curiously, the need to inform underage donors isn’t the current focus of policymakers. Instead, the focus is on informing the parents of underage donors about the need for more donors (C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2018). To be fair, this is not without justification—since replacement organs for the young are a scarce resource, and the need is very great (Meinecke, 2017).

But these consequences are not scarce; at some point, most of us will be asked to agree to a legally binding decision when we get our driver’s license. Yet we have not been adequately informed of the consequences of that legally binding decision.

A small request

Please educate us first before asking us to participate in something we know very little about. Let us make an informed decision regarding the final destination of our own bodies—especially when we are just children hoping to get a license, on the difficult road to adulthood.


C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. (2018). Parent views on registering children to be organ donors. Mott Poll Report, 31(1). Retrieved from…

Grow, B, & Shiffman, J. (2017, October 24). The body trade: Cashing in on the donated dead. Reuters. Retrieved from

Meinecke, L. D. (2017). Neglected by assessment: Industry versus inferiority in the competition for scarce kidneys. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (ProQuest No. 10689852)

Shapiro, J. (2012, July 18). Am I a tissue donor too? NPR. Retrieved from

More from Lonny D. Meinecke Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today