July 22, 2010 In the U.S., You can Donate Your Body to a Med School; in Dalian, China, They Offer Other Options (2nd of a 3-part series)
Jesuit Ethicist, Falun Gong Member Weigh in on “BODIES…The Exhibition”
Patrons of the incoming travelling cadaver show “BODIES…The Exhibition” from Premier Exhibitions Inc. will be dazzled this fall at the Galleria, and not just by the holiday décor and spirit.
With paid admission, they’ll get close-up views of preserved human bodies with brains cross-sectioned like prosciutto, or the sight of a gutted young man reaching out to nothingness — with his torso opened up in the likeness of a ransacked dresser-drawer.
But, in their hurry to see this bizarre bazaar of plastic-preserved cadavers, they may miss this placard in the entrance of the Exhibit: “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.”
“BODIES…The Exhibition” is no stranger to controversy. Neither is the inventor of human plastination, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the German physician who perfected the act of filling human cadavers with polymer, placing them in lifelike positions, and setting them out on international tours. Von Hagens’ show creation, “Body Worlds,” had its first showing in Tokyo in 1995, and has been met with huge success and profits. It even made a cameo appearance in a recent James Bond film.
Its popularity spawned the similar show “BODIES…The Exhibition.” Both travelling shows have raised moral questions, including: Is it right to do such a thing? And, who would condone or patronize such shows?
Opinions abound on the moral status of patrons and purveyors of the exhibition. One local practitioner of the persecuted religious group, Falun Gong, prefers not to judge those who pay to see “BODIES…The Exhibition.” Falun Gong, founded in the early 1990s in China, espouses meditation and public Tai-Chi exercises as part of its rites. Falun Gong has alleged that some of its practitioners whom have been imprisoned by the Chinese Bureau of Police are now some of the cadavers on display. They cite the vagueness of the aforementioned disclaimer in their allegations.
Peng Su, a Falun Gong practitioner in St. Louis, said patrons are just going based on pure curiosity. “They probably are not well-informed,” she said. “If they are well-informed, they might make a different decision.”
The government of the People’s Republic of China has been imprisoning and has been, as often alleged by Falun Gong and several damning news reports, torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting their vital organs for black market trade.
From the Falun Gong web site: “Cultivators of Falun Dafa (a.k.a. Falun Gong) strive to cultivate their xinxing (mind-nature, or character) and remove their attachments to become kinder, more honest and more patient people.” I don’t know for sure, but people who live that kind of clean, peaceful life might be good candidates for an organ donor program.
When asked how Falun Gong might outsmart the Chinese Communist Party, she was loath to discuss any such act. China, according to Amnesty International reports, leads the world in the number of yearly executions. “Actually, we are peaceful,” she said. “We are not fighting with the Chinese government. We just hold onto our principles.”
Falun Gong’s symbol, its Falun, holds five swastikas and four taijitu (yin and yang) icons, as seen in the featured graphic. All Falun Gong seek to perpetuate universal balance, and balance within. The swastika, before it was hijacked by the Nazis during their campaign of horror and destruction, had long been a powerful and positive global symbol. In Eastern cultures, it is a symbol of Buddha. It’s often emblazoned on statues and buildings in Asia.
Su said that it’s been an uphill battle for Falun Gong from its inception in a totalitarian state like China, which has little tolerance of religion. She hopes that international attention will prevail for the imprisoned and Chinese underground Falun Gong practitioners. She didn’t mince words when discussing the PRC’s harsh treatment of Falun Gong. “If you look at history, you see that evil can never win,” she said. “If you stay with the truth, all you need is the truth. If you make lies, you need 1,000 lies to cover it.”
The two local Falun Gong practitioners interviewed for this blog, Peng Su, and another who wished to be identified as “Shimin,” said they cannot return to China for fear of execution.
‘Every One of Us is Different’
Unlike modern-day China, St. Louis University’s medical school experienced a cadaver shortage in the mid 1950s. The number of unclaimed bodies (which, by law, were sent to St. Louis’ two medical schools at the time) dropped to 90 in number around 1955. The SLU and Washington University medical schools were experiencing difficulty providing enough cadavers (at this time 45 cadavers per school) for their medical, physical and occupational therapy students as a result.
After several legal incarnations, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of the state of Missouri became law in 1969. This facilitated the efforts of the St. Louis University Medical School’s Gift Body Program.
With that Act, the gift of an individual’s body after death allowed for students at the SLU Medical School to work with cadavers whose provenance was, and is today, unquestioned.
At the time of death, the family of the deceased contact the SLU Medical School to verify donation. According to the program’s web site, “the family gives the signed donation forms to a funeral home director or a transporting company official. They in turn deliver the unembalmed body with the proper papers to the Center for Anatomical Science and Education of Saint Louis University School of Medicine.” The transportation of the deceased to the school is the only expense that is paid by the family or the estate of the donor.
The program is a highly respected one in the St. Louis community. A personal friend of mine who died two years ago had donated his body to the Gift Body Program. Each Fall, the SLU School of Medicine hosts a memorial for the families of the deceased, with the medical students in attendance. Fatima Ali (Class of 2010) paid his respects to donors and their families at a memorial service in 2006: “As a student of medicine I am moved by their gift and as a human being. I am inspired and humbled by their courage…They allowed us the opportunity to become better physicians and inspired us to live life to the fullest.”
A woman whose mother had donated her body to the program spoke of the professionalism and appreciation the students showed for donors and families at a memorial service. She said one medical student’s testimony particularly touched her. She remembered that the student said they were all taught to embrace respect for the donors’ bodies, and their lives. The best lesson learned from the experience? “Every one of us is different,” the student said.
Such programs as the above are encouraging medical students to be respectful of the human body, both in life and death, said a local educator. In other words, gone are the days when medical students swagger into the anatomy lab, giving nicknames to their cadavers, putting baseball caps on them, and cracking jokes in poor taste at their expense.
One local educator noted that medical schools nationwide are encouraging much more respectful practices in the cadaver labs, as compared to the days of lab tomfoolery in the past. “Many physicians and medical students have a kind-of religious experience when they are doing cadaver work,” said Fr. Edwin Lisson, S.J., a medical ethicist at St. Louis University. “The body is created in the likeness of God, and it is to be respected.”
The Catholic Church, universally viewed as a standard setter for wrong vs. right, has said little of the upcoming St. Louis visit of “BODIES…The Exhibition.” In fact, I would be surprised if the St. Louis Archdiocese does not get involved or at least issue a statement sometime between now and October. I live in a heavily Catholic city, and sought the opinion from an educator in the Church.
I chose to consult an ethicist to discuss some of the controversy around “BODIES…The Exhibition.” What better place to look than the Society of Jesus, right here at St. Louis University? It turns out the Church does have one man of the cloth here who would discuss the show. He doesn’t exactly toe the line with some of the Church’s ideals. The following account begs the question: Is he a philosophical maverick, or a new luminary in the Church?
Fr. Edwin Lisson, S.J., is an associate professor in the department of Theological Studies at St. Louis University. According the SLU web site, he has recently taught the classes “Christian Morality,” “Health Care Ethics,” and “Bioethical Controversies.”
Lisson said the documents provided by the Chinese government pass muster. He thinks that criticism of the provenance of the cadavers is shallow. “There is a documentation process by the Chinese government showing that these people on display were not criminals,” he said. “There is no concrete evidence that in any way connects this with the abuse of Chinese prisoners.”
Lisson takes the Chinese government at its word regarding the provenance of the cadavers, and holds that U.S. governing authorities, and show patrons, should follow suit. “As I understand it, there is reasonable documentation,” he said.
Lisson said that if the show heightens public awareness of human anatomy while promoting good health habits, then the exhibit has done a great service. To him, viewing “BODIES…The Exhibition” is really a matter of personal choice and taste: you decide whether or not you wish to see these bodies as displayed.
Lisson said that unless the opponents can be consistent with their moral decisions and consumer purchases, they should remain quiet. “The same people that oppose this have TVs, computers, t-shirts made in China,” he said. He also believes that his views will not escape criticism.
For instance, when asked if portraying a female cadaver in advanced pregnancy – baby and all – with a sliced open abdomen was off-the-charts far-gone, he let it slide. “I mean, even pro-life agents show the fetus in several stages for their purposes,” he said. I told him children would be seeing the show. “I think that section, as I understand it, is in a separate room. And parents have the option whether or not to bring children in,” he said.
At this point of the phone interview, I felt we were upping the ante with each succeeding question and answer. But I nearly dropped my pen on that one.
I told him, his overall view, as a cleric in the Church, is likely to cause a stir. “I know it’s controversial,” he said. “And there are probably some people who are going to disagree with me.”
When asked if this imprisonment-and-body-processing complex was in any way akin to Holocaust precision, he scoffed at the notion. “I think it’s a ridiculous comparison,” Lisson said.
Lisson mentioned the Educational part of the show (apart from portrayals of cadavers in lifelike stances). Educational, meaning you know, the show’s display of a smorgasbord of body parts, both healthy and unhealthy… the hardened liver vs. the spongy one; the pink, virgin lung vs. the smoker’s gray, hardened lung. That sort of thing. This part of the exhibit, he said, serves to encourage healthy habits. “If that would scare the person away from smoking, that’d be worth the price of admission,” he said.
They Don’t Look Like Us
The whole time I spoke with Fr. Lisson, or anyone else who gave the PRC a pass for this show, I couldn’t help but wonder something. And I am going out on a limb here (this is the blogosphere, so it’s okay to do such a thing) but, would it matter more in the U.S. if these disfigured and flayed human figures looked like…us? And I ask that because, clearly, they don’t look like us. Most of the cadavers in “BODIES…The Exhibition” are of Asian descent in appearance. For example they don’t look like white people from Denmark, or France, or even….Dr. von Hagens’ homeland of Germany.
I predict there’s going to be a hushed, racist sigh of relief from some Galleria attendees this Fall at the show. Viewers will observe in the facial features that these mangled former human beings in “BODIES…The Exhibition” aren’t exactly those of our cousins from the Old World. But hey, that’s just me. Going further out on that limb, why is there such a fascination with fastening faux breasts on the female cadavers, or the snickering addition of stylized sexual organs on them?
I must admit, when I began research on this story a few weeks back, it was just another blog posting. I didn’t have to live through this horror; I just wrote about it. Then, I saw a picture of a young Chinese-imprisoned woman whose head was split in half by a close-range executioner’s bullet. I guessed from the photo the soldier was probably her age or younger. And he was just following orders. That picture of her horrible death changed my way of thinking about this show of human cadavers– for good.
The exhibit opens at the Galleria the first week of October. There’s lots of time until then to voice your opinion to the people who are at the helm of this thing. Meantime, The Buried Lead will still be digging up more information.
The rest, as it’s often been said, is up to you. Contact information for the Galleria, Premier Exhibitions Inc. and Falun Gong:
General Growth Properties
Adam Metz, Chief Executive Officer
110 North Wacker Drive
Chicago, Ill. 60606
Premier Exhibitions Inc.:
Brian Wainger, attorney
Falun Gong (Missouri) aka Falun Dafa:
Tags: anatomy, BODIES...The Exhibition, Body Worlds, Brian Wainger, cadaver donation, cadaver shortage, Dalian, Edwin Lisson, Falun Dafa, Falun Gong, General Growth Properties, Gift Body Program, Gunther von Hagens, human plastination, Premier Exhibitions Inc., Society of Jesus, St. Louis Archdiocese, St. Louis Galleria, St. Louis University Medical School, swastika