From Seattle writer and consultant Matt Rosenberg...

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Something Smells About The Chinese Corpses On Display In Seattle

January 03, 2007

The Seattle P-I reports today a kidney was stolen over the weekend from a Chinese cadaver at a Seattle science exhibit. But let's back up. Action-posed, "plastinated" Chinese corpses of vague provenance - with brightly-colored plastic polymers replacing residual fat and moisture - have drawn huge crowds to public exhibitions across North America, including in San Francisco and Tampa. In a like vein, "Bodies The Exhibition," staged by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions and hosted by Seattle Theatre Group, continues its Seattle run at 800 Pike until April 1. The anonymous Chinese corpses come from the plastination lab at Dalian Medical University in China, via the Chinese government, as you will see later here. Dismayingly, the same lab is operated by a former partner of plastination pioneer and anatomist Gunther von Hagens of "Body Worlds" fame. von Hagens, the son a former Nazi SS officer, himself has served as a visiting professor at Dalian Medical University, and for some of his international plastination exhibits received from China the corpses of apparently-executed prisoners. In the January 2007 issue of Commentary Michael J. Lewis writes:

...von Hagens...by 2001...had amassed enough funds to construct a plant in Dalian, China, which is now the principal center of his far-flung plastination enterprise....While, in North America, Body Worlds is now touring in three versions, in Europe it has disappeared, having gone unexhibited since 2004. For in that year, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel published a lengthy expose of von Hagens, the burden of which was that at least some of his subjects showed evidence of bullet holes in the back of the neck, the preferred Chinese method of executing prisoners.

Since the Chinese government is von Hagens' principal supplier of bodies, this certainly seemed plausible. For his part, von Hagens fought the charge furiously, obtaining a court order enjoining Der Spiegel from repeating its findings. But in the meantime he also destroyed any potential evidence, cremating remains before they could be examined.

As the New York Times reported, von Hagens subsequently requested Chinese corpse suppliers not send him any who had been "sentenced to death."

A P-I story sheds light on the Dalian, China roots of the corpses on display in Seattle, and the connection of Premier Exhibitions with a former partner of the ethically suspect von Hagens.

Premier Exhibitions has been up front that it uses bodies -- legally obtained -- that come from China. Partnered with the Dalian Medical University and the plastination lab operated there by Dr. Sui Hongjin (a former partner of von Hagens'), the company does not own the bodies used in the show, but instead has them on loan from the school. (Zaller said Premier has paid more than $25 million to lease the bodies for multiple exhibitions over a five-year period.)

"This Seattle exhibit is deeply flawed," Aaron Ginsburg, a pharmacist from Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail to the P-I. "The bodies were not donated, and may well have belonged to political prisoners. China is not a nation of laws, and any assurances that the bodies were legally obtained is meaningless."...Dalian Medical University receives the bodies from the government....Premier has contracts with the university certifying that the bodies are not those of former prisoners or people from mental institutions. (Premier does not, however, show its contracts to the media.)

If one is merely offended by the aesthetics of such exhibits, it is easy enough to say, "then don't go." But the ethical issues are not so easily resolved. Signed consent forms from the deceased displayed next to each body on public view - not merely documentation from the Chinese university lab that prepared the bodies - would have gone a long way toward resolving such concerns. Lacking such documented and explicit personal approval from the subjects while still alive, it is unethical to display the bodies to the public at all, and especially for profit.

The theft of a kidney at the Seattle exhibit last weekend from the corpse of a Chinese citizen who did not grant permission for posthumous public display certainly underscores the callous nature of the entire endeavor.

Determining the handling of one's body after death is a basic human right. Others must not deign to intuit that the brash public exhibition of corpses for fun and profit is ethical without explicit consent in advance from the now-deceased on display. The glib contravening of this basic human right by Chinese authorities, and exhibitors and hosts in Seattle and elsewhere shows great disrespect to the dead.

UPDATE, 1/6/07: The exhibitors are offering a $10,000 reward for the stolen kidney. A par-for-the-course ameliorative move, considering the circumstances - which yet does nothing to address the underlying ethical issues. Speaking of which, Aaron Ginsburg, the Boston-area pharmacist quoted in the P-I story (cited above), has his own web site on the controversy, including a page on the current Seattle exhibit. And Seattle Post-Intelligencer metro columnist Robert Jamieson has a spot-on column today, prompted by the kidney theft, but delving deeper.

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Comments:

As was noted in the blog, I have created a website discussing the ethical problems with this and similar exhibits. Although the consent issue is important, these exhibits would be wrong even if consent was obtained. We are more than the fascinating objects that these exhibits portray. We are human beings who have laughed and loved and suffered. Out of respect for the living, the bodies of the deceased should be treated with dignity and respect. Plasticizing them and using the results to sell tickets to show off our technical virtuosity crosses the line. If there is any educational value in these exhibits, it could have been obtained without the use of real bodies. And it does matter how we treat the deceased-it reflects how we treat each other. Please click on my name to read the extensive comments I have received and also review the links that have I found discussing these exhibits

Posted by: Aaron Ginsburg at January 6, 2007 03:02 PM

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