We don’t get a chance to see something like this exhibit every day in Winnipeg. Our city is comparatively small, as are our venues. The temporary conversion of an abandoned building downtown by True North Entertainment in order to house the exhibition could be a step towards revitalizing the city’s core. BODIES has been championed as a revelatory glimpse into the miracle that is the human body. It has simultaneously been accused of profiting from tragedy and capitalizing on desecration. Before you decide to attend this immensely successful anatomy lesson there are some things you may want to know.
Controversy has haunted the macabre display since it debuted in 2005. Premier Exhibitions, the company that owns BODIES, uses unclaimed corpses that have been preserved via a polymerization technique invented in the ’70s by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. He developed a similar exhibition which opened to its own controversies in 1995. His show, Body Worlds, uses bodies that have been donated through his donor program. The shows are so similar that one article, on the CBC website, uses a photo from Body Worlds in a story about BODIES, the exhibition and its imminent arrival in our province. It’s difficult to avoid confusing the two.
For those concerned about the ethics of displaying the remains of deceased individuals, a brief Google search will lead you to BODIES’ promotional website where visitors are assured that the bodies used have been obtained from a medical school in accordance with Chinese law.
Medical schools and laws are generally perceived to have a handle on the major ethical questions we often don’t have time to contemplate. The sticky problem of consent has been worded around, but this show is educational. Medical schools are also educational. Therefore, this commercial enterprise, which has been extensively marketed toward having human interests at heart, is justified in corpse manipulation for their personal gain without the individual’s consent.
Another troubling aspect of these particular bodies are the accusations regarding who they may have belonged to.
If you look at the bottom of the flash content at the company’s website (www.prxi.com), in small grey text you will see a link to the “Bodies NY Disclosure.” Here you will find a more definitive description of the history behind the preserved specimens.
As part of a settlement reached between Premier and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the company was required to disclose that it “cannot independently verify that [the bodies] do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.” Also as a result of the lawsuit, Premier Exhibitions is now required to obtain proof of consent before displaying cadavers (not applied to those previously acquired) and all prior visitors to the New York exhibit were entitled to a refund of their ticket price.
The Laogai Research Foundation is an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., which works to raise awareness about human rights violations in China. Their position is that it is “very likely that at least some of the bodies on display are those of executed prisoners.” China’s capital punishment policies have drawn international criticism for including many non-violent offences among those for which the penalty is death.
The show has been banned in the state of Hawaii and was recently banned in Seattle. Legislation has been introduced to regulate use of non-consenting decedents in California, Washington, Florida and Pennsylvania. A bill (H.R. 5524) that would prohibit the importation of plastinated remains from China into the United States was introduced early this year in to the U.S. Congress in response to the concern over the source of these bodies.
In preparation for this article, I spoke with professor Neil McArthur, associate director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics here at the university.
“The government can only regulate things when they notice that they’re worth regulating,” he said, in response to a question about whether Premier’s profit from unclaimed corpses places pressure on future exhibits to forego pursuing consent.
He went on to say: “There’s a role for government here that is not perhaps being fulfilled. Regulation is the key that society has come up with to ensure that ethical businesses are not disadvantaged and forced out of business by those that would act unethically.”
Though it isn’t the kind of education Premier had in mind when the show was conceived, BODIES will demand critical thought — whether on the subject of consent, business ethics, cultural mores surrounding death, or how we know what we know about how a human being becomes an unclaimed body on the other side of the world.
Leanne Roed is the Graphics Editor at the Manitoban.