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Origins of Exhibited Cadavers Questioned

For two years now, exhibitions of human cadavers have been traveling the country, shown in science museums and other spaces. The shows, featuring corpses that have been preserved and solidified through a process called plastination, have been wildly successful. But they also have been dogged by criticism.

One delicate ethical concern stands out above all the others: whether the bodies were legitimately obtained. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination and the impresario behind the Body Worlds exhibitions, says that every whole body exhibited in North America comes from fully informed European and American donors, who gave permission, in writing, for their bodies to be displayed. The science museums that have hosted Body Worlds also make this assurance.

"What I certainly never use for public exhibitions are unclaimed bodies, prisoners, bodies from mental institutions and executed prisoners," von Hagens says.

Chinese medical schools supply von Hagens with unclaimed bodies, which he plastinates and sells to universities. Von Hagens used to take cadavers from the former Soviet Union, but he stopped after body-trafficking scandals in Russia and the Kyrgyz Republic.

Five years ago, customs officers intercepted 56 bodies and hundreds of brain samples sent from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy to von Hagens' lab in Heidelberg, Germany. The cadavers were traced to a Russian medical examiner who was convicted last year of illegally selling the bodies of homeless people, prisoners and indigent hospital patients.

Von Hagens was not charged with any wrongdoing, and says his cadavers are obtained only through proper legal and ethical channels.

Still, NPR has learned there's no clear paper trail from willing donors to exhibited bodies. People donating their bodies to von Hagens send consent forms to his Institute for Plastination. They pay to have their bodies transported to a plastination facility. There, their donor forms and death certificates are checked.

That paperwork is then separated from the bodies, which can be used for displays or sold in pieces to medical schools. No one will know for sure, because each plastinated corpse is made anonymous to protect its privacy.

Hans Martin Sass, a philosophy professor with a speciality in ethics, was hired by the California Science Center to investigate Body Worlds before the show's U.S. debut in 2004. He matched over 200 donation forms to death certificates, but he did not match the paperwork to specific bodies von Hagens has on display.

Body Worlds should not be confused with its competitor, BODIES... The Exhibition. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds is now in St. Paul, Minn., Houston and Boston. BODIES... The Exhibition is in Tampa, Fla., Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York City.

Roy Glover, spokesman for BODIES... The Exhibition, says its cadavers -- all from China -- did not come from willing donors.

"They're unclaimed," Glover says. "We don't hide from it, we address it right up front."

For that reason, many venues will not display BODIES... The Exhibition. Groups such as the Laogai Research Foundation, which documents human rights abuse in China, have charged that the category of unclaimed bodies in China includes executed political prisoners.

When BODIES... The Exhibition opened first in Tampa, Fla., last summer, the state anatomical board requested documentation proving the corpses were ethically obtained. Dr. Lynn Romrell, who chairs the board, says it got only a letter from the show's Chinese plastinator asserting that they were.

"He stated that none of the material came from criminal institutions or homes from the mentally insane. But just his word on that, no documents," Romrell says.

Romrell wanted to close the exhibition down, but says the state anatomical board lacked the authority.

The owner of Body Worlds says each body he displays can be accounted for, but he is unwilling to make public a complete paper trail. His competition, BODIES... The Exhibition, relies on documentation from a country with a problematic human rights record. Even at best, its exhibitors say the bodies were not formally donated by people who agreed to be displayed.

Despite questions about the two exhibitions, both continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors around the country, and some museums are even thinking about adding plastinates to their permanent collections.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.