Plastination Exhibits Continue to Generate Controversy

Plastination Exhibits Continue to Generate Controversy

Exhibits featuring plastinated human cadavers and body parts have generated controversy since they started touring the world’s prestigious science museums and other venues in 2004. Concerns have centered on the issue of whether or not the bodies use to create the exhibits were obtained through legitimate means and donated with informed consent. Similar questions have been raised about the plastinated human corpses and body parts sold to academic institutions and medical universities around the world.

Body plastination technology, developed by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, uses formaldehyde, acetone, silicon, epoxy and other polymer mixtures to replace fluids in the human body, thus preserving tissues. It is important to note that the plastination process must be performed on corpses less than 48 hours after death.  The bodies must be fresh and cannot be embalmed.

In the early 2000s, von Hagens set up human corpse processing factories in Dalian, China. Later, Dalian Medical University Anatomy Professor Sui Hongjin set up a rival plastination operation. Both have created multiple exhibitions with hundreds of specimens that have been seen by over 50 million people around the globe over the last fourteen years.

In 2008, New York State’s Attorney General required the exhibitor, Premier Exhibitions, to prominently display the following disclaimer:

“This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”

Both the French (2010) and Israeli (2012) Supreme Courts effectively removed the exhibits from their respective countries by declaring the commercial use of human remains illegal.   The U.S. State of Hawaii banned the shows, as did city councils in Seattle and elsewhere. Last summer, the Czech Republic joined the ranks of those barring the exhibits by passing a law making it illegal to display human remains without proof of informed consent.

Controversy flared once again as ‘Real Bodies: The Exhibition’ opened in Sydney, Australia last month. An open letter, signed by lawyers, academics, ethicists and human rights advocates, sent to the Australian Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Health and New South Wales Minister for Health, urged the immediate closure of the ‘Real Bodies’ exhibition due to lack of documentation regarding the sources of the bodies used. The authors also called on all schools, universities and other organized groups to boycott the exhibit.

The Queensland Times, Independent Australia, the New Zealand Herald and quoted the human rights advocates who voiced “grave concerns that the bodies were not freely and willingly donated” and that the remains are those of executed criminals or tortured Chinese prisoners of conscience, specifically Falun Gong practitioners. The international press also covered the controversy with stories in The Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Conversation, the BBC and the Epoch Times.

Under Chinese law, it is illegal to execute pregnant women for capital offenses, yet one exhibit features a dissection of a pregnant woman with a near term fetus.  Is it possible that a man would donate the dissected remains of his dead wife and unborn child to be placed on public display? The Chinese people have cultural taboos about disturbing bodies of the deceased. Why would so many Chinese families donate corpses of young adults, pregnant women, children and infants to be preserved in varying stages of dissection for companies that profit from exhibiting their loved ones’ remains to people around the world?

According to decades old Chinese Ministry of Health rules, medical colleges may use undocumented corpses that remain unclaimed for a month after death or execution. Undocumented corpses must be embalmed for storage.  The plastination process requires fresh corpses and cannot be performed on embalmed bodies. Despite this, owners of plastination facilities and organizers of these exhibits have claimed for many years that the specimens used for exhibits all came from unclaimed corpses.  Their claims are therefore highly suspect.

On May 17, 2006, a medical student in northeastern China wrote to (translated from the original Chinese),

“I am a medical science student. I found out this past year that the biggest body warehouse in Asia is located in China. Even a small community medical school in China stores more bodies and organ specimens than Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan.”

“A large amount of teaching materials was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but why have there been so many bodies and organ specimens available in the last few years? I also discovered that the specimens made before the Communist take-over were all marked with the year and register code, but all specimens after 1949 have nothing marked on them. I asked my teacher if these bodies were donated, and my teacher said not to ask such questions.”

“Later I found out there is a body processing factory in suburban Changchun City, Jilin Province.”

“As medical science students, we need to dissect bodies in order to practice. I wonder if it is really because China now has so many people volunteering their bodies that we have a body processing factory? More puzzling is that there are bodies of infants and young children as well, but are their parents truly willing to donate their bodies? Without government permission and without the CCP’s involvement, it would not be possible for individuals or organizations to conduct such a ‘business’.”

The sources for the human bodies used to create these plastination exhibits and the specimens sold to academic institutions around the world have never been adequately explained.  Organizers have repeatedly claimed that all the bodies were voluntarily donated but have not provided concrete proof. Since the onset of the Chinese government’s persecution of Falun Gong in 1999, these practitioners have represented the majority of incarcerated prisoners of conscience in China. Multiple pieces of evidence collected over the past twelve years indicate that Falun Gong practitioners have been the primary target for live forced organ harvesting. It is reasonable then to assume that the hundreds of human corpses subjected to the plastination process are likely those of Falun Gong practitioners whose bodies have been monetized to create hugely profitable museum displays and teaching tools for academic institutions and medical schools around the globe.