Worldwide controversy follows exhibition of corpses

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A cadaver on display at a previous Body Worlds Exhibition. (Source: CBC)
A cadaver on display at a previous Body Worlds Exhibition. (Source: CBC)

Dr Gunther von Hagens’ exhibition of plastinated corpses and organs, ‘Body Worlds Vital’, will be showing in Auckland next month. Von Hagens, an anatomist, is the inventor of plastination, a process whereby body fluids and fats have been replaced by silicone polymers and epoxy resins.

For several years reports have been surfacing regarding the origin of the bodies used for this purpose and whether they have been accompanied by legal consent from families or the deceased themselves. The NZ Herald has also addressed these concerns in a recent article. 

The fact that such a practice may be taking place in the name of science has raised concerns in relation to ethics and human dignity. 

Related: ‘Disturbing’ origins of dead bodies exhibition

Regulations banned body exhibitions lacking consent

In July 2017, ‘Bodies: The Exhibition’ was held in Prague, the Czech Republic. The promoter did not show any proof of origin of the bodies or consent for such use.

Canadian Chinese, Huang Wanqing, who heard that the exhibition was taking place, travelled to Prague where he lodged a criminal complaint against the organisers saying that he believed that the body of his brother, who disappeared in the prison system in China, was one of the exhibits.

Such exhibitions have now been banned in the Czech Republic following a law change that requires legal documentation.

Exhibitions have also been banned in Israel and France for the same reason.

Read more: End To Dead Bodies Exhibitions in Czech Republic. New Law Requires Deceased‘s Consent

Most Chinese corpses were from ‘public security, procuratorate and court systems’

During a visit to Prague, human rights lawyer, David Matas, told the Epoch Times that some of the bodies could belong to Chinese prisoners who have refused to reveal their names in order to protect friends and family.

In 1999, von Hagens moved to China where he set up a plastination factory in Dalian, Liaoning Province, with the consent and support of the Chinese authorities. His apprentice, Sui Hongjin, became general manager of Von Hagens’ Plastination factory and was largely responsible for sourcing bodies.

By 2004, Sui Hongjin, who no longer worked for von Hagens, had set up his own plastination factory, Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique and now supplies and directs ‘Bodies…The Exhibition’ in competition with his former boss Gunther von Hagens at ‘Body Worlds.’

In 2004, von Hagens was investigated by German State Prosecutors amid revelations that the corpses he obtained for Body World exhibitions included executed prisoners, reported The Telegraph.

‘Evidence published in the magazine Der Spiegel revealed that at least seven of the 647 corpses stored in an underground bunker at the professor’s vast “body processing centre” in the city of Dalian, in northern China, had head injuries. Two had bullet holes in their skulls,’ reported The Telegraph.

A plastinated fetus within a pregnant cadaver at a previous Body Worlds exhibition. (Source: the Telegraph)
A plastinated fetus within a pregnant cadaver at a previous Body Worlds exhibition. (Source: the Telegraph)

Von Hagens subsequently agreed that some of the bodies may have been executed prisoners.

“I have told my Chinese employees they cannot accept bodies that have been executed,” he said.

Read more: Body Worlds impresario ‘used corpses of executed prisoners for exhibition’

Evidence obtained by the German newspaper Der Spiegal, in 2004, showed that a 9-month-old foetus listed in the Von Hagens’ factory’s “fetus and infant database’ had been sourced from the “Public Security Bureau” (police) in 2001.

‘How could a 9 month old foetus end up in the Public Security Bureau?’ questions WOIPFG (World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong).

An investigation conducted by Uphold Justice reported findings from Chinese authorities concerning the “Source of Human Cadavers used in the Plastination Industry in China.”

The Chinese Ministry of Health’s, ‘Regulations on Dissection of Corpses’, 22 February 1979, states that a corpse that remains ‘unclaimed’ for one month is considered to be unclaimed and can be used for studies in medical schools.

But Chinese research institutes, commenting on the subject of plastination, says that only ‘fresh’ bodies are used.

The investigation further indicated that the provider of ‘fresh cadavers’ for plastination is the people’s court, procuratorate and public security of China.

In May 2008, a settlement with the Attorney General of New York obliged Premier Exhibitions, Sui Hongjin’s exhibition partner in the United States, to publish a disclaimer on its website and at the exhibition hall.

‘The disclaimer clearly states that the origin of Dalian Hoffen’s cadavers was from ‘the Chinese Bureau of Police’.

The disclaimer continues, ‘With respect to the human parts, organs and foetuses and embryos you are viewing, Premier relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners and cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.’

Read more: An Investigative Report on the Source of Human Cadavers Used in the Plastination Industry in China

 

A cadaver displayed at the Body World's Exhibitions at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in 2008. (Source: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images Europe)
A cadaver displayed at the Body World’s Exhibitions at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in 2008. (Source: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images Europe)

Contradictions and Unanswered Questions

A report from the National Public Radio (NPR) has found no clear paper trail from a deceased donor to a plastinated body. “Dr. von Hagens … says that he obtains them all only through trusted sources, but no outsider has verified that they might not be, in a worst-case scenario, dissidents killed in a Chinese prison, then sold through a body broker to a medical school, and then displayed to the public.”

When asked about the source of the bodies used in his plastination factory in Dalian, Sui answered, ‘The bodies were used by medical schools for anatomy study. The medical schools obtained the bodies as “unclaimed corpses.”

However, Uphold Justice has revealed that the plastination of bodies in Sui Hongjin’s factory take place as soon as 2 hours following death and no later than 2 days.

The investigation suggested that the ‘bodies were indeed unclaimed or it might be that the bodies were not even allowed to be claimed.’

Where did Sui Hongjin get so many “fresh bodies” to support the lucrative plastination business?’ asked WOIPFG.

The New York Times reported in 2006, ‘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.’

Read more: China Turns Out Mummified Bodies for Displays

In an interview conducted on 17 August 2012, Sui Hongjin told the Southern Metropolis Daily that “none of the cadavers were from executed prisoners. Since the first day of Dalian Hoffen, we have never used any such corpses!”

In a later interview with Metropolis Daily on 22 August 2012, Sui Hongjin stated, “So far none of the bodies we used for plastination is from donation.”

Since the departure of Sui Hongjin from von Hagens Plastination Gunther von Hagens has claimed that the bodies he uses for plastination are from legitimate donors.

Suspected links between cadavers and prisoners of conscience

According to Minghui.org, ‘Von Hagens once told reporters that he chose to open a branch in Dalian, not only because of the cheap labor, but also because of the active support from officials and bountiful body supplies.’

This coincided with the period when the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese authorities was at its height.

Note: Falun Gong was founded in 1992 in China. It is known as an ancient spiritual practice based on principles ‘truthfulness, compassion and forbearance’ and a set of meditation exercises. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been reported to persecute Falun Gong practitioners since 1999.

Read more: The Dark Secret of the Bodies Exhibitions

Ethan Gutmann, who is an investigative journalist, has written extensively about forced organ harvesting in China, where prisoners of conscience – mostly practitioners of Falun Gong, are systematically killed for their organs.

Ethan Gutmann requests DNA samples tested to determine if cadavers in the Body Worlds exhibition have been sourced from prisoners of conscience. (Source: NTD/Sonja Ozimek)
Ethan Gutmann requests DNA samples tested to determine if cadavers in the Body Worlds exhibition have been sourced from prisoners of conscience. (Source: NTD/Sonja Ozimek)

In an interview with the Epoch Times in 2013, Gutmann indicated suspicious links between the disappearance of prisoners of conscience and the source of human cadavers. To resolve the controversy, Gutmann proposed taking DNA samples from cadavers which would effectively resolve the controversy.

Read more: Body Worlds Challenged to Provide DNA

Gutmann continued, “If any samples are Chinese we can match them with DNA from Chinese families who lost a loved one because they were Falun Gong. That will take years. But it’s worth it, because the families have the moral authority in this case.”

Read more: An open letter from a mother to the New Zealand government , schools and all New Zealanders

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