|by Mari Winn Taylor
Ethical debate regarding Body Worlds and its breakaway version BODIES - The Exhibition has been festering since their first appearances in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination that allows use of cadavers, and the man behind the Body Worlds exhibitions claimed that every whole body exhibited in North America came from fully informed European and American donors who gave permission in writing for their bodies to be displayed. However, his assertion was subject to skepticism and debate, especially in 2006 when an NPR investigation found that there was no clear paper trail identifying the origins of the bodies.
Dr. Sui Hongjin, once a protege of von Hagens, partnered with Premier Exhibitions to create the rival exhibition. Organizers of this show did not deny the allegation that the corpses shown came from unclaimed Chinese bodies.
According to comments made by Neda Ulaby, "Plumbing the Murky (and Crowded) World of Cadaver Displays" (Aug. 10, 2006), because the corpses from "BODIES...The Exhibition" all came from unclaimed Chinese bodies the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale (FL) had rejected the show for the city's War Memorial Auditorium citing serious ethical concerns. He apparently was one of many who sought to prevent the showing from opening.
The debate, Ulaby pointed out, argues either pragmatically in favor of using dead bodies rather than having them rot or against using them because of ethical concerns and the notion that it is a "gruesome Brechtian parody of capitalist excess."
One might also consider the educational value of the exhibit. What the promoters of the exhibit say they want to achieve is to remedy a person's lack of knowledge of what lies beneath their skin--"how our bodies function, what they need to survive, what destroys them, what revives them" and in so doing "to become an informed participant in [one's] own health care." This, of course, might be just a smokescreen for their main desire to make money--a goal through the years they achieved with bravado.
Two exhibits are still exceptionally vivid in my mind even though I don't recall the exact date I viewed the exhibition when it opened in New York City. The first is a comparison of a healthy lung with one blackened by the tar build-up accompanying smoking tobacco. The other, that I recall many avoided, showed embryonic and fetal development--how well formed an example of an early stage appeared to be. Both might be of interest to Missourians who top the charts in the number of smokers and/or who ardently are pro-life supporters. All exhibits demonstrate the amazingly intricate systems of the body and how they should be respected.
THE JOPLIN INDEPENDENT advocates for choice. However, Congressman Todd Akin (R-2) in a letter dated June 23, 2010 to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster condemns the exhibition that is slated to open at the St. Louis Galleria on October 2, 2010 and seeks an excuse to keep it from opening.
Steve Taylor, spokesperson for Akin, cites "the fact that the exhibit had a disclaimer that it cannot guarantee they they were not bodies of prisoners or possibly even executed, allegations by civil rights organizations, as well as evidence presented in a 60 Minutes report in 2007" as the basis for objections.