Cars have never been safer. That fact is largely due to the use of crash tests and destructive experiments conducted on car designs. Similar tests have improved the safety of everything from airline seats to passenger rail cars.
To do these tests, sophisticated crash test dummies have been developed. These dummies have improved vastly over the years. They are reusable, packed with sensors and designed to accurately mimic the human body’s response to crashes.
However, to make these dummies and to validate their response, there must be something to compare them to. Ideally, that would be real, living, breathing, healthy, humans. Unfortunately, ethics boards tend to have a problem with using humans for anything other than the most benign of crash tests. Living human volunteers are still used for some things, like range of motion measurements or determining things like tissue density. When it comes to actual crash tests, however, it’s dead humans, cadavers, that are used to conduct the tests.
The overwhelming majority of crash tests don’t use cadavers, but they remain an important part of research. The bodies are treated with respect and are generally wrapped in materials that cover parts like the face and hands. But, in the end, they are hurled against things and beaten to a pulp before being x-rayed or autopsied to determine the injuries sustained.
This really bothers some people a lot…
Most of the bodies used are from those who never granted specific permission to use their remains in crash tests, but did donate their bodies to science. There is no requirement that those who agreed to have their bodies used for scientific purposes are given more details about what kind of research that might be. In fact, it’s often not until after they die that it is determined how the body will be used.
I find the distaste for this to be misplaced. If one donates their body to science, it is to be expected that things will happen to it that might not be pretty. If it doesn’t get hurled against a wall, it will be chopped up in pathology studies or anatomy classes or it might be left out to rot in decay studies. No, it’s not pleasant to think of, especially with loved ones, but it’s not much worse than the alternative. If not donated to science, the body will either be put into the ground to rot or burned. Neither of these are really something many of us want to look forward to. But that’s death, which is something I am trying to put off for as long as reasonably possible.
If nothing else, this use of cadavers could be considered the most important, at least in so far as its impact on the living. Few other experiments represent a more direct means of saving human lives.
Personally, I do not find it deceptive to not tell donors or their families about the possibilities of crash tests. The best way of dealing with a grieving family, in my opinion, is to provide some basic information. For example, one could say “Your relative has decided to donate their body to science. Their remains will be used in a manner that will advance scientific and medical knowledge. There are a number of ways this might happen. We could give you the details about the kind of experiments carried out, but to be honest, you would probably wouldn’t want to hear all the details.”
It’s no different than most funeral arrangements. Families may know their loved one will be embalmed and prepared for display and burial. However, they aren’t normally given the full details about how the deceased will have their blood drained, their eyes glued shut and cotton balls stuffed up their anus. That’s just not a picture most would want to have.