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Dead Bodies at “Bodies” Exhibit May Be Executed Chinese Prisoners

Dead Bodies at “Bodies” Exhibit May Be Executed Chinese Prisoners

by Gary Hunter

In 1977, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens developed a technique called plastination. The process involves slicing open human cadavers, exposing or extracting the internal organs, and infusing them with silicone or other polymars. Entire bodies can be preserved through plastination. In 1995, von Hagens began displaying his creations to the public in an exhibit called Body Worlds. The response was phenomenal.

An Atlanta-based company called Premier Exhibitions, Inc. opened its own version of a plastinated body exhibit in New York in 2005. The display, called Bodies ... The Exhibition, included 20 full-body cadavers and more than 200 organs, embryos and fetuses. Since opening, over 1.5 million people have attended the exhibition.

Last year, however, concerns were raised as to the origin of the bodies on display. Premier insisted that the cadavers were legally obtained from Dailan Medical University in China as “unclaimed” corpses. But an exposé by ABC’s 20/20 program reported the bodies actually came from a plastination lab not connected with the university.

Premier reportedly paid $200 to $300 apiece for the bodies, which were suspected to have come from Chinese prisons. Arnie Geller, former CEO for Premier, said he was assured by the lab that “these are all legitimate, unclaimed bodies ....”

Human rights activists like Sarah Redpath were unconvinced. “In the U.S. we have very specific laws as to what constitutes ‘unclaimed,’” she noted. “Premier’s use of ‘unclaimed’ is unknown,” since the standards in China are different.

U.S. Representative Todd Akin introduced a bill in April 2008 to prohibit plastinated bodies and organs from being imported into the United States (H.R. 5677). Akin said a primary concern is that the Chinese citizens did not give permission for their bodies to be put on display after their death.

“This is a human rights issue about affording human dignities to people around the world,” he stated.

The congressman’s concerns are well founded. In 2006 the Chinese government admitted that bodies of executed prisoners were being illegally harvested for organs; regulations to restrict that practice were imposed in May 2007. [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.24; Jan. 2008, p.16].

Until now, U.S. Customs has not interfered with the importation of plastinated bodies, under the theory that the process alters human remains to such an extent they can be imported as plastic objects. Rep. Akin disagreed. “That is the same rhetoric that oppressive governments around the world have used to dehumanize people,” he said.

Although Akin’s proposed legislation failed to pass in Congress, state lawmakers in California and Pennsylvania have introduced similar bills requiring exhibitions to provide documentation of legal consent for the cadavers they put on display.

In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo initiated his own investigation into what he termed “Premier’s practice of using bodies of undocumented origins in their exhibitions.” He subpoenaed records from the company related to how the bodies were obtained.

In a May 29, 2008 settlement agreement, Premier agreed to put $50,000 in escrow to give refunds to past customers who claim they would not have attended the exhibit had they known the dubious origins of the bodies. Premier also agreed to post a notice on its website and at its exhibits stating they are unable to confirm that the cadavers on display are not those of Chinese prisoners.

The notice, in very small text near the bottom of Premier’s website, is titled “Bodies NY disclosure.” It states, in part, “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.”

Premier admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement. Note that the New York Attorney General’s action against Premier did not involve von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, which, according to a June 2, 2008 press release, “is not affiliated with any other anatomical displays or copycat exhibits that use unclaimed and found bodies from China.”

Sources: Atlanta Business Chronicle,, www,

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