Sunday Forum: Exhibition of exploitation

ELAINE CATZ explains why she quit her job at the Carnegie Science Center after it decided to put human bodies on display

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The bodies are coming to Pittsburgh. "Bodies ... the Exhibition" features 15 human bodies and more than 200 additional organ and partial-body specimens. These are people who, after death, were "plastinated" in a factory, their bodily fluids replaced by polymers. At best, they died unidentified and unclaimed. At worst, they were victims of human rights violations. In any case, they never gave consent to be used in this way.


Elaine Catz was an education coordinator for the Carnegie Science Center for nearly 11 years until she resigned June 14 to protest the museum's decision to host "Bodies ... the Exhibition" (ehcatz@aol.com).


German anatomist Gunther von Hagens developed the plastination process in the 1970s to preserve cadavers for medical schools, but he soon found it more lucrative to exhibit the bodies and charge admission. To bring in crowds, he skinned, sliced and posed the corpses, billing them as art. Among his displays was a man carrying his own skin over his shoulder, another kneeling in prayer, his heart literally in his hands.

After touring Eurasia for a decade, Mr. von Hagens reframed his work as "educational" and brought "BODY WORLDS" to North America. Lured by high profits, others created their own touring-cadaver shows. Enter "Bodies ... the Exhibition," coming to Carnegie Science Center this October.

Promoted by Premier Exhibitions Inc. of Atlanta, "Bodies" is more science-oriented than "BODY WORLDS," but it crosses a line even Mr. von Hagens has avoided. "BODY WORLDS" specimens are volunteers. For "Bodies," Premier says it is renting cadavers from China's Dalian Medical University, which acquired the unidentified, unclaimed corpses from police.

Premier admits that none of the people in the exhibit gave consent to be plastinated or displayed after death. While this raises many ethical issues, even larger ones arise when one considers that the source of "Bodies" corpses is questionable.

Premier does not deal directly with any of the plastination factories that have sprung up in China. Last August, New York Times correspondent David Barboza interviewed Premier's chief executive, who stated that, while they have "traced the whole process," the company relies on a supplier to acquire the corpses. When Mr. Barboza went on to speak with officials at Dalian Medical University, he found that they had no record of Premier's supplier obtaining the bodies there.

The Chinese government is prone to arrest and execute its citizens. More than 60 offenses, including some that are solely political or economic, are punishable by execution. In the past few years, 80 percent of the world's government-ordered executions have taken place in China.

Organ transplantation is a huge industry in China, as well, and people from around the world travel there to purchase organs and undergo surgery. But China has no voluntary organ donation system. Tens of thousands of transplanted organs have come from unidentified sources.

At a surgical conference last Nov. 14, the Chinese deputy health minister publicly acknowledged that his country has a thriving illegal organ trade. He also said that most organs transplanted in China are taken from executed prisoners. To facilitate this process, the government has changed its preferred method of execution. Prisoners are put to death by lethal injection while on route to a hospital in a "mobile execution van." Once there, their organs are harvested.

Horrifying rumors circulated last year that China was harvesting organs from live Falun Gong prisoners to meet rising demand. Falun Gong, a banned practice in China, focuses on meditation exercises intended to improve physical and spiritual health.

Former Canadian parliamentarian David Kilgour and international human rights lawyer David Matas investigated the claims. They uncovered surgeons who bragged about having easy access to Falun Gong organs, Falun Gong prisoners who were regularly tested to determine donor matches and expatriate Chinese doctors who admitted harvesting organs from live Falun Gong prisoners, killing them in the process.

This evidence and more led to their July 2006 conclusion: "The government of China ... has over the past half decade put to death a large but unknown number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. Most ... were murdered by medical professionals for their vital organs."

What are the implications for "Bodies ... the Exhibition," for which all of the bodies and organs on display were "unclaimed and unidentified"?

Premier says that it has "[Chinese] government certificates that guarantee none of the bodies had been a murder victim, prisoner, mental patient or aborted fetus." But clearly, the Chinese government's integrity is questionable.

Premier is paying $25 million over five years for the bodies and organs it is exhibiting -- a deal that is as profitable for organ dealers, if not more so, than selling parts for transplants. Does this mean the "Bodies" exhibition itself has fueled black-market organ trafficking? Possibly. Might any of the bodies and organs it displays have belonged to a prisoner, executed or otherwise? Absolutely.

If this is the case, why use real corpses? Premier claims "Bodies" can teach millions about the importance of "healthy lifestyle choices." By viewing the intricate details of real bodies, visitors gain a better appreciation of their own, then decide to exercise more, eat more nutritious food or quit smoking.

Certainly, there are many other ways to accomplish these goals. There is only one purpose for using actual cadavers, and that is to drive up attendance numbers.

So, what is this exhibit really teaching millions?

It teaches that, once he is deceased, there is nothing wrong with taking a person's body without his consent (better if he is nameless and foreign), plastinating, skinning, butchering and posing him with a piece of sporting equipment, to be viewed by people of all ages.

It teaches that there is nothing wrong with exploiting the dead in order to make a profit, as long as it is in the name of science or education or art. It doesn't matter that a "specimen" might have hoped that her remains would be treated with reverence and dignity instead of being positioned by a designer to best reveal her internal organs to the world.

It teaches that it is incredibly easy to dehumanize others. Many exhibit visitors say that after a few minutes, they become so fascinated by the subject matter that they forget they're looking at real people. But when we dehumanize the dead, it becomes easier to dehumanize the living.

Every death, whatever the cause, is that of a human being who wished, in life, to be treated with respect. If we wish others to respect us, we must demonstrate respect for the humanity of all people, and of their memories and bodies after death.

The bodies are coming to Pittsburgh. What message is Pittsburgh sending the world if we welcome them in?



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