Questions over bodies exhibition


OPINION:SOME 11 million people may have seen Bodies – The Exhibition, a travelling display of cadavers and human specimens which opens at the Ambassador Theatre tomorrow. However, there are a number of issues people in Ireland should consider before they join this global throng, writes Muiris Houston.

Of most concern is the source of the bodies which have been dissected and placed on display. According to organisers Premier Exhibitions, it obtained the bodies from the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in the Republic of China. But the origin of the cadavers before they reached these laboratories remains murky. Are the bodies those of executed Chinese prisoners?

This allegation is denied by the exhibitors, but last May it said in New York it could not prove that the bodies were not of prisoners who might have been tortured or executed.

Even if the people whose bodies are now on display had died from natural causes, from where they came remains an issue. Were they donated to medical science before death by means of informed consent? Did their relatives give permission for the bodies to be used in this way?

Following an investigation by the New York attorney general Andrew M Cuomo last year, the following statement was released by both Premier Exhibitions and Cuomo: “There is no written record that any of those persons consented to the plastination and exhibition of their bodies. Rather, those bodies were unclaimed at death, collected by the Chinese Bureau of Police, and delivered to the Dalian Medical University and other universities in China for education and research.”

However, when you log on to Premier Exhibition’s website, all you are told is: “Premier Exhibitions cannot, however, independently guarantee the origin of the specimens.”

In other words, the bodies you may be planning to bring your sons, daughters or pupils to view have no provenance. “Unclaimed at death” covers a multitude of sinister possibilities.

Dr Roy Glover, an associate professor emeritus of anatomy at the University of Michigan and medical director of the exhibition, says it is common practice in medical schools that corpses not claimed are donated for education and research purposes.

However, this is not the case here. Anatomy departments are scrupulous in seeking consent from people who express an interest in donating their bodies to science and have criteria that restrict the final acceptance based on how the person dies. Unclaimed corpses do not end up in any of our medical schools.

Maybe none of this really matters. Is looking at these exhibits any different from medical students dissecting a cadaver in a university anatomy department? Well, actually, it is.

Respect for the body is an integral part of dissection: it takes place on consecrated ground; and the dissected body is buried about two years after donation. And there is a defined process with a beginning and an end, unlike the fate of these unknowns who, following plastination, travel the world in a Barnum and Bailey-like titillation of the masses.

Then the merchandising. Click on and you can order T-shirts, mugs, key rings and other items illustrating cadavers in various “action” poses. And while you are on the website, check out the visitor comments from previous exhibitions. Amazingly, not a single person has a negative observation. I wonder why?

In the past, medical students handed real skeletons on to one another for use as a practical aid to learning anatomy. Most did not stop and think about whose remains they were. However, in later professional life, many doctors were taken aback to learn that some of these skeletons came from the killing fields of Cambodia and Vietnam and had found their way to the West as war booty. It was a lesson in the importance of asking difficult questions. Parents and teachers need to ask themselves some hard questions before they buy tickets to this exhibition. Does it represent science, or is it simply entertainment? And might it be better to use the display’s arrival to discuss the ethics of organ donation or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Dr Muiris Houston is Medical Correspondent of The Irish Times