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University of California moots barcodes for corpses

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The University of California is considering using barcodes and RFID tags to keep track of the bodies donated to medical research, following a series of scandals involving illegal trading in body parts.

Last year, the director of the university's Willed Bodies programme and one other person at UCLA was arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into illegal sale of body parts. Courts suspended the programme pending completion of the investigation. As yet, no charges have been filed, according to AP reports.

Some people who planned to leave their bodies to science withdrew their offers after the news broke. In response, the university proposed a series of reforms to the way cadavers will be managed, including the use of barcodes and RFID tags. Organs removed from a corpse would most likely be tagged, too.

The proposals have been given a cautious welcome by lawyers acting for families involved in an earlier incident at the university. In 1996, donor families accused the university of cremating the remains of their loved ones along with medical trash and the bodies of laboratory animals. After this, the lawyer said, the university had also promised to clean up its act.

UC Irvine has also been investigated. In 1999 it was unable to account for hundreds of willed bodies, and the director of the program was accused of selling spines to a hospital in Phoenix. The director was sacked, but denies wrong-doing, and was never prosecuted.

Experts in bioethics have warned that any automated system needs human back-up. Dr Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told AP: "Most of this illicit trade in body parts is done by bad guys. Having the barcoded chips is great, but if you want to beat them you need to have someone come in occasionally and say, 'I'm doing an audit'." ®

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