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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Mummified Bodies from China

This article appeared last week in the New York Times and discusses China's growing mummified body business:

Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.

“Pull the cover off; pull it off,” one Chinese manager says as a team of workers begin to lift a blanket from the head of a cadaver stored in a stainless steel container filled with formalin, a chemical preservative. “Let’s see the face; show the face.”

The mastermind behind this operation is Gunther von Hagens, a 61-year-old German scientist whose show, “Body Worlds,” has attracted 20 million people worldwide over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million by displaying preserved, skinless human corpses with their well-defined muscles and sinewy tissues.

But now with millions of people flocking to see “Body Worlds” and similar exhibitions, a ghastly new underground mini-industry has emerged in China.

With little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs — which appear to come mostly from China and Europe — at least 10 other Chinese body factories have opened in the last few years. These companies are regularly filling exhibition orders, shipping preserved cadavers to Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Fierce competition among body show producers has led to accusations of copyright theft, unfair competition and trafficking in human bodies in a country with a reputation for allowing a flourishing underground trade in organs and other body parts.

Here in China, determining who is in the body business and where the bodies come from is not easy. Museums that hold body exhibitions in China say they have suddenly “forgotten” who supplied their bodies, police officials have regularly changed their stories about what they have done with bodies, and even universities have confirmed and then denied the existence of body preservation operations on their campuses. . . .

Worried about a growing trade in illegal bodies, the Chinese government issued new regulations in July that outlawed the purchase or sale of human bodies and restricted the import and export of human specimens, unless used for research. But it is unclear how the regulations will affect the factories. . . .

Experts say exhibitions featuring preserved bodies are now among the most popular attractions at American science and natural history museums. While the shows have not appeared at two of the most respected museums — the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York — they have appeared at major museums in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. . . .

The industry is dogged by questions about the origins of the corpses. Premier says its exhibition uses unclaimed Chinese bodies that the police have given to medical schools. None of the bodies, it says, are those of executed prisoners or people who died of unnatural causes. . . .

Officials at the Customs Bureau here in Dalian and the Dalian Medical University, however, said they had no records showing the supplier of Premier having acquired bodies and then transporting them to exhibitions abroad.

“I don’t know where the bodies came from,” said Meng Xianzhi, a spokesman for the university.

Dr. von Hagens, who opened the first large-scale body preservation factory here in Dalian in 1999, said he abided by the regulations.

The fierce rivalry between Premier and Dr. von Hagens’s company, the Institute of Plastination, has moved to the courts, over everything from copyright claims to rights to the name “Body World.” They have each publicly hinted that their rival is engaging in unethical behavior in acquiring bodies in China.

Although the exhibitions appear to have some educational value, I am not sure they are worth it when the bodies apparently could have been donated involutarily.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/healthlawprof_blog/2006/08/mummified_bodie.html

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