Body Talk

"Bodies… The Exhibition" and "Bodies Revealed" tours have recently been getting a lot of bodies talking – about whether the exhibit is ethical and about the origin of the cadavers used.

Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions’ traveling exhibits are currently showing in cities as diverse as Barcelona, Spain; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Sacramento, Calif.

The bodies used in the exhibit were preserved by a process called plasticization, which replaces the body’s natural water with polymers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Full-body specimens are shown in various activities, including throwing a baseball, swinging a bat or riding a bicycle. Visitors can check out the interior of a heart, a pair of healthy lungs compared to the black ones of a smoker and even a specimen of a pregnant woman cut away to show the fetus inside.

Respiratory, digestive and nervous systems and tissues are shown as well as an entire body sliced horizontally and one sliced vertically.

The descriptions may be graphic but the attraction is popular and reviews are highly positive.

However, religious leaders in cities including St. Louis and Cincinnati have protested the show for ethical reasons, saying that the exhibit disrespects the dead, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

"You’re going to be entertained by looking at dead bodies, by looking at cadavers that have been put in the most atrocious poses for our entertainment," Rabbi Louis Feldstein said, according to ABC News.

On February 15th, ABC’s "20/20" ran a segment with Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a German doctor who said he invented the plasticization process in 1975 to preserve body specimens for medical schools and who has made millions of dollars since 1995 in shows similar to "Bodies" worldwide.

Von Hagens said an underground black market is providing bodies to Chinese companies for use in the U.S. and Europe, despite a 2006 Chinese law that prohibits exporting human bodies for commercial purposes.

The show suggested that Premier Exhibitions was connected to global body trafficking and that some bodies in the exhibits were executed prisoners, according to the Business Chronicle.

Premier Exhibitions published a statement February 15th in response to the "20/20" segment, suggesting that the company believes "a competitor contributed to manufacturing these baseless claims to suit his own agenda."

"Based on the documentary proof compiled by Premier, these sensational allegations are without any factual merit. … Another report suggests that not all of the specimens died of natural causes.

"Premier Exhibitions Inc. retains and utilizes a team of medical experts … who as a matter of course, examine the specimens to ensure that they do not bear any evidence consistent with trauma, serious bodily injury, execution or torture. All of these specimens died of natural causes and despite extensive investigation, Premier has found no credible evidence to suggest otherwise," the statement concluded.

On February 28th WQED-TV hosted a live 90-minute panel discussion about the controversial exhibit, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A panel including ethicists, clergy, law enforcement officials and Carnegie Science Center Director Joanna Haas engaged in debate.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams and Duquesne business ethics professor Jim Weber said they believe exhibit bodies used for science are usually of value as long as they’re legally obtained.

The Science Center in Pittsburgh said they have sworn affidavits from Premier Exhibitions that state the bodies were unclaimed remains and were obtained legally.

Panelist Rabbi Danny Schiff countered that just because a body was unclaimed didn’t make it OK to be used in this manner.

"There seems to be a presumption that if you have unclaimed bodies you have carte blanche to do whatever you please with them," he said, according to the Post-Gazette. "In their lifetime, some of these people might have been horrified by being put on display like this."

Although one science center employee quit her job in religious objection to the exhibit, Haas said that most of the museum staff, an advisory committee and exhibit visitors believe in the benefits of the show.

Premier medical director Roy Glover said that since the ABC "20/20" report aired, "We really haven’t seen any fallout whatsoever. … Attendance has still been very strong," according to the Kansas City Star.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma has sponsored legislation in California that would require "Bodies" exhibitions to provide documentation of consent from donors before being shown in the state, according to the Catholic Key.

"As a person of Chinese descent, I just don’t believe any family would consent to have their kin shown this way," Ma said, according to ABC News. "The skin is ripped off; body parts are exposed so that someone else could be making millions of dollars looking at them."

Ma’s bill passed the California Assembly and now goes to the State Senate, according to the Catholic Key.

Washington state legislators are looking into similar new laws and on February 26th a Pennsylvania lawmaker said he will also propose legislation requiring written consent from the deceased or their next of kin for bodies to be involved in a for-profit exhibit, according to the Business Chronicle.