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‘Bodies’ exhibition using human corpses raises questions regarding human dignity

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Pittsburgh Catholic) - The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh is presently hosting “Bodies ... The Exhibition,” an exhibit featuring dozens of cadavers that have been skinned and “plastinated” in poses meant to illustrate the human body.

Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, organizers of the exhibit, and the Carnegie Science Center have said they hope to increase public knowledge of the miracle of the human body and encourage people to improve how they care for their bodies.

The Carnegie exhibit is one of several venues across the country where “Bodies…The Exhibition” is presently on display. The show is presently running in Columbus, Ohio, and Framingham, Mass., through Jan. 20; in San Diego, Calif., through Jan. 31; in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., through Feb. 17; in New York through April; and in Las Vegas, Nevada, through June. The Pittsburgh exhibition continues through early May.

The exhibit has already passed through several other U.S. cities and some foreign locations as well.

The cadavers for the “Bodies” exhibit are from China. Premier Exhibitions effectively rents the bodies from a Chinese medical university that, in turn, acquired the unclaimed bodies from Chinese police.

In a news release in January announcing the exhibit, Joanna Haas, director of the Carnegie center, said placing the “ ‘Bodies’ exhibition is a major milestone in support of Carnegie Science Center’s efforts to connect Pittsburgh’s groundbreaking advances in life science and medicine with the inherent curiosity of the public. It is our mission to make profound and thought-provoking exhibitions like this accessible to every citizen.”

Controversial, yes; undignified, maybe

Despite such glowing descriptions, the “Bodies” exhibit has generated considerable heat locally. In an article last year in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was reported that scheduling of the exhibit led Elaine Catz, a longtime employee of the science center, to resign in protest.

Explaining her position in a column in the June 24 Post-Gazette, Catz wrote that the Bodies exhibition “teaches that it is incredibly easy to dehumanize others. ... But when we dehumanize the dead, it becomes easier to dehumanize the living.”

“Bodies ... The Exhibition” raises serious concerns. The church has always valued the human body as created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). “Being in the image of God,” the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says, “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone” (357).

The church witnesses to this teaching not only in its defense of human life at all stages, but also in its requirement that the bodies of people who have died be given appropriate care and dignity. Catholic funeral practices and church-run cemeteries are clear examples of this understanding by the church.

It does not necessarily violate church teaching when the “Bodies” exhibit planned for the Carnegie center uses corpses for public display and education. For centuries, the church has supported the concept of using bodies of the deceased for medical science. Many religious communities today encourage their members to donate their bodies for scientific research.

Additionally, the portions of the exhibit that demonstrate the consequences of poor diet, lack of exercise and harmful behaviors (smoking, alcoholism and so on) teach important lessons to everyone.

Ends don’t justify means

However, good ends never justify immoral means, and there is much about the “Bodies” exhibit that raises important concerns about the dignity and respect that must be accorded human beings.

The bodies were obtained, “plastinated” and exhibited without the previous permission of the deceased or family members. While the Catholic Church has long supported the donation of bodies for scientific advancement, it is always understood that morally and ethically such donations must be donated with valid and informed consent.

“Plastinated” is a process of replacing bodily fluids with polymers shortly after death. This allows the body to be preserved and posed for exhibit.

The cadavers come from China, a country with an atrocious record on human rights. Though the exhibition’s organizers have stated otherwise, it is difficult to determine satisfactorily whether the bodies are the result of human rights abuses.

Even if the cadavers were not victims of political repression, they would more than likely be from China’s poor. The right to dignity in the treatment of a deceased body is not waived because of poverty.

There is also that part of the exhibit that displays fetuses with various birth defects and at various stages of development. Again, this can be legitimate and even provide a positive pro-life message.

As Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, wrote concerning a similar exhibit: “an exhibit which reveals the human child in utero by a simple cutaway can serve to powerfully remind visitors about the reality of the pro-life message. ... In the words of one astute observer: ‘If young women had windows on their stomachs, so they could see into their own wombs, the number of abortions would decline drastically.’”

Moral questions still need answers

Yet, the problem of the source of the fetuses remains. The unknown origins of the fetuses and China’s notorious mandatory abortion policy make it difficult to determine if the fetal remains were secured legitimately. Again, a good end does not justify immoral means.

The presentation of the cadavers, which are often posed in strange positions, may give the impression that the deceased human body can be presented as an object of idle curiosity or even amusement. Viewers could easily see this exhibit as similar to a 19th century carnival presentation of human oddities, rather than contemporary science. Premier Exhibitions is also a for-profit entity, which could certainly add to the impression that the bodies are being exploited for financial gain, rather than any real scientific purpose.

There are enough concerns, however, that Catholics and Catholic organizations should seriously consider not attending the “Bodies” exhibit until and unless adequate explanations are provided by both Premier Exhibitions and the science center.

(This story was adapted with permission from Pittsburgh Catholic. For a set of questions and answers provided as a teaching tool by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, please see the related article also in the Diocesan area of Catholic Online.)

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Pittsburgh Catholic(www.pittsburghcatholic.org), official newspaper of the Dicoese of Pittsburgh,Pa.

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