Topic: Science & Technology

When Cadavers Become Art
(9/9/2006)

In the category of new technological advances that we probably could have done without is the startling technique of "plastination," which treats human cadavers with a plastic substance that allows their skin, muscles, eyes and internal organs to appear bright, alive and, as they say in "The Mummy," "Juicy!" This allows exhibiters to turn the dead into works of art or frozen artifacts out of a particularly vivid horror movie, depending on your particular point of view. Disgusting or beautiful, educational or grisly, recent public exhibitions of the treated bodies have been so popular at art galleries and science museums around the world that there is a burgeoning competition among those who create them.

The man who invented the process is Gunther von Hagens, a 61-year-old German scientist whose show, "Body Worlds," has attracted 20 million people worldwide during the past decade and earned more than $200 million by showing provocatively posed and preserved skinless human corpses with defined muscles and fresh-looking tissues…at least those that aren't diseased. Now he's launched a sequel, "Body Worlds 2," which is touring the United States. Von Hagens' bodies have been donated by art and science-loving Europeans who, he says, knew that they would end up naked, flayed, and exhibited doing things like playing golf or riding a skinless horse right out of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as it might be directed by Wes Craven.

Well, "most" of his bodies have been donated, whatever that means. A few have come from China, which has a veritable plastination industry and has spawned several exhibitions that compete with "Body Worlds." One that has toured the U.S. is the creation of one-time protege of Dr. von Hagen, now his bitter rival. The Chinese exhibitions preserve the bodies of Chinese who died unidentified or unclaimed by family members, or, critics claim, were dug up in the dead of night by art-loving body-snatchers.

Where are the ethical lines in this?

It all revolves around the concept of informed consent. True, some claim that treating and exhibiting bodies in this manner is inherently unethical, even if the bodies' owners were crazy about the concept of a posthumous career as a traveling exhibit. It's difficult to agree with that argument. Nobody sees the treated cadavers who doesn't want to, and if the cadavers'owners wanted to be seen in all their bright-colored glory, the consenting adult circle has been effectively closed. [Note: NPR reporter Neda Ulaby recently reported that the chain of custody matching von Hagens' subjects with the documentation of their consent is unsatisfactory; he can no longer match all of his exhibits with a particular volunteer. This is ominous, though it is not proof that von Hagens is anything worse than a poor record keeper.] Those who find the exhibits morally wrong because they feel the displays cheapen and degrades human life have an objection that can't be disproved, only disputed. Many who view the exhibits feel that the experience is awe-inspiring. Many others feel that the exhibits are an invaluable educational experience. With no perceptible harm involved, the exhibits must be assessed as ethical.

Some of von Hagen's subjects, such as the plastinized late-term embryo seen peeking out of his skinned mother's uterus in one of von Hagen's creations, make this verdict tougher to maintain, but as one ethicist was quoted to say, "Edgy isn't unethical." The unborn have been exhibited in tanks at medical schools and museums of formaldehyde for centuries without any ethical outcry. Still, they did not consent. Certainly no child below the age of consent should ever be put on display regardless of how enthusiastic his or her parents may be about the idea.

Von Hagen's Chinese competitors, however, are not using bodies with informed consent. Some, it is whispered, may even be deceased political prisoners.

At least one ethicist isn't even bothered by this, as long as certain conditions are met. According to Reverend Tadeus Pacholczyk, a bioethicist and teacher, a cadaver's former occupant's "informed consent can probably be presumed" under certain conditions. Among those he mentions are that the remains are not being used "in a disrespectful manner" (some kill-joys would argue that the entire process is per se disrespectful; isn't respect part of what burial was all about?), that "there is an educational, spiritual or inspirational end being realized by the use of the remains" (what about gawking, titillation, and cheap thrills?), that "there was no indication left by the individual or a relative explicitly stating that they did not want the remains to be used in this public service" ( "Dear World: Please don't let them pump plastic into me and exhibit me naked, without half my skin, playing tennis. I hate tennis."), and that the death of the individual "was not intentionally caused in order to procure the body or tissues." I guess I agree with that one. But "consent can probably be presumed?" No.

John Arthur, an Assistant Professor of Archaeology at the University of South Florida, correctly evaluated the problem when he was asked last year to comment on "Body Works," a Chinese plastination exhibit then in Tampa. "These individuals from China did not give consent for their bodies to be cut up, preserved and shown in public," he said." The policy regarding human remains by the Society for American Archaeology states that human remains are an important part of understanding human knowledge, but that 'human skeletal materials must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.' One cannot argue that stripping down a human being to show specific human parts as an "educational" exhibit is demonstrating respect."

America wants to encourage the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit, but the competitors of Dr. von Hagens are displaying their callousness to human rights. These are the kinds of competitions in which ethics must count. There are some doubts about a few of von Hagens' subjects, but based on what we know, the pioneer of plastination is generally on the right side of the ethical divide, and his Chinese competitors are on the other.

Whether "generally" is good enough for you to buy a ticket is your call. The Scoreboard will wait until it is certain that all of Dr. von Hagens' subjects approved of their show business careers.

 

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