Nov. 11th, 2007

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[info]kitanzi and I went to see "Our Body: The Universe Within" Saturday at the Detroit Science Center, and it was incredible. By using a process called "plastination", scientists have been able to preserve human bodies in a way that you can see muscles, veins, arteries, nerves and just about everything else.

It sounds horribly disgusting - after all, the exhibit includes 12 complete human bodies, including one sliced into two-inch lengths like a 3-D MRI - but I found it fascinating. It puts all of the anatomy diagrams you've ever seen into a 3-D human-shaped, human-sized package. I walked away from the hour we spent there with a much greater understanding of how human bodies work.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there are major questions about the origin of the bodies used in the exhibit. The official statement on the "Our Body" website says:

"All of the anatomical specimens contained in Our Body: The Universe Within originate from China and have been provided for the exhibit consistent with the laws of China. The anatomical specimens are not owned by the exhibitors, but are provided by a Chinese foundation to promote educational and medical research of the human body. While we do not have the specific identity of each anatomical specimen, they have been donated through medical schools and other research facilities in China to promote education, science and medical research of the human body."

That sounds vaguely legitimate, but "consistent with the laws of China" doesn't mean much. When the bodies for the Detroit show were obtained, it was still legal in China to sell the organs of executed prisoners, so the above statement doesn't rule much out.

The organizers aren't doing much to help the ethical concerns, either. In an interview with the Metro Times, "Our Body"'s medical adviser had trouble with what seemed like a simple question:

"When questioned where the bodies come from, Dr. (Walter) Hofman says it's a legitimate institute or foundation in China whose name he has forgotten."

Other reports credit the bodies to "The Museum of Life Sciences Project" in Beijing, which may or may not actually exist - there don't seem to be any citations to it other than this project - or Beijing University, which has denied any involvement.

The company that runs the show, The Universe Within Touring Company, has trouble keeping its own story straight. While the above quote says that some of the bodies "have been donated through medical schools", the CEO says in a different interview that none of the bodies are medical-school cadavers.

One of the groups running similar shows in the United States has been slightly more forthcoming, acknowledging that their bodies were "unclaimed and unidentified at death". A third group, led by plastination inventor Gunther Von Hagen, was confronted with evidence that some of its bodies came from China with bullet holes in their skulls, and eventually acknowledged that a few might have slipped through.

The exhibit is certainly highly educational. How does that balance out the questions about the bodies? Does it matter that, at best, it seems that these were people who died alone and unclaimed? Since the exhibitors don't know anything about the corpses' identities, there's no way to verify that they consented to be displayed in this way, and if they were Jane and John Does, they certainly didn't consent.

And if they are the bodies of Chinese political prisoners, sold after their executions?

I'm troubled by this. I learned a great deal, but I wish I had known this ahead of time.

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