Pennsylvania regulates the preparation of dead animals for display, but there's nothing on the books about exhibiting plasticized human cadavers. That will change if freshman state Rep. Michael E. Fleck has his way.
Mr. Fleck, R-Huntingdon, is readying a bill that would govern the popular but controversial traveling exhibits of human corpses and body parts, including "Bodies ... The Exhibition," now showing at Carnegie Science Center.
"I'm ashamed to say this needed to be done long ago, but at least we're working on it now," Mr. Fleck said. "If we regulate taxidermy and funeral directors, we should regulate this."
The bill would ban the commercial exhibition of human cadavers without written consent from the deceased or their next of kin that clearly states the person's intent to be used in a profit-making enterprise.
The bill also would require a permit from the host county before cadaver shows could be mounted. It would exempt human corpses used for medical or scientific research, as well as funeral viewing and historical display of human remains more than 100 years old.
The legislation has 20 co-sponsors after only a few days, Mr. Fleck said yesterday. He said supporters have signed on from across the political spectrum and most parts of the state, but no one yet from the southwest corner -- the only place where a body show is currently on display. (A competing show, "Body Worlds," appeared in Philadelphia in 2005-06.)
"I only sent out the call for co-sponsors late last week, so I'm not surprised I haven't heard from more people yet," Mr. Fleck said yesterday. "Usually it takes a few more days for the message to really get out."
Mr. Fleck said he will introduce the legislation March 10, the first day of the new session. It would put Pennsylvania on a path similar to that of California, where the state Assembly recently approved a bill to require exhibitors to prove that the deceased gave informed consent for the use of their remains.
The show at Carnegie Science Center uses flayed, dissected and posed bodies from China without consent from the deceased or their relatives. Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, the show's promoter, says the corpses were unclaimed and legally obtained in China, and that the people died of natural causes. But a recent ABC report alleged that some of Premier's cadavers came from executed prisoners and linked the shows to a global market of body trafficking.
Science center officials dismissed the ABC report, and continue to maintain the exhibit is highly educational. It runs through May.
The Premier show has drawn attention from prosecutors as well. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has launched an investigation into the source of the bodies, and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey has called for a congressional inquiry. Premier has said it will cooperate.
Mr. Fleck said the use of executed prisoners would be "repulsive if it's remotely true," but that in any case, the lack of consent was "disturbing on so many levels."
The commercial shows, he said, are "counter to America's long history of respect for the dead. During the Civil War, both sides would stop fighting so they could go out and bury the fallen."
The public, he said, has a right to demand proof that the bodies were obtained in legitimate ways no matter where the shows appear, but especially when they're in a tax-supported venue.
"The Carnegie Science Center has been getting about $250,000 a year in state funding, so the public has a stake in this," he said.
WQED's Town Hall meeting on the ethics and issues of "Bodies" is scheduled to air Thursday from 7:30 to 8 p.m. on Channel 13, but will continue for another hour on the WQED Neighborhood Channel (13.3 digital) and on the HD Channel. The show also will stream live in its entirety at WQED.org.
Sally Kalson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610.