It has taken me two days to find the words to even BEGIN to describe my experience of viewing The Bodies Exhibit, which is being displayed here in Seattle currently. It’s hard to formulate a cohesive paragraph when I have so much internal, conflicted feeling and thought rolling around inside me. But, as usual, I like to tackle the "big stuff", so I’m gonna give it a try.
On Wednesday this week, I announced to you I was headed out to see The Bodies Exhibit…partly out of Scorpio-induced morbidity, partly out of sheer scientific interest, and somewhat out of a need to see for myself what the "controversy" was all about.
In case you’re not familiar with this exhibit OR the controversy surrounding it, here are just a few websites and snippets from the sites to fill you in. Of course, to get the full flavor, you might want to read the web pages in their entirety:
From a newspaper in Florida (I believe), http://www.sptimes.com/2005/07/28/Tampabay/Who_is_running_man.html , comes this snippet:
"Who Is Running Man?"
They came from China unidentified, unclaimed. We don’t know their names or if they mind our stares. TAMPA - In death, they have a relationship with the world far more intimate than when blood ran through their veins. Now, they expose the core of their being to thousands of strangers.
Yet when they were alive, the people whose preserved bodies soon will be on exhibit at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry never gave their permission to be part of such an the unusual public display.
The bodies belonged to people from China who died unidentified or unclaimed by family members, said Dr. Roy Glover, a retired University of Michigan anatomy and cell biology professor and spokesman for "Bodies, the Exhibition," which opens next month at MOSI. As a result, their remains went to the Dalian Medical University of Plastination Laboratories in the People's Republic of China. The university in turn charges a fee to use the bodies for educational purposes.
"We acquired these bodies. They were not donated," said Glover, medical director for Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, the same group that brought the Titanic shipwreck exhibit to MOSI in 2003-04.
That contradicts what Glover told the Times two weeks ago when he said all the bodies had been donated to medical facilities.
"There is no way for us to tell who they are," said Wit Ostrenko, president of MOSI, which on Wednesday unveiled "Running Man," one of 20 fully preserved cadavers in various poses that will be part of the 14,000-square-foot exhibit from Aug. 20 to Feb. 26.
Glover hesitated to speculate what these people would have said about how science is using their bodies.
"These particular individuals are helping us to understand our bodies," said Glover. "I think they would be pleased."
Some experts in medical ethics aren't.
The article goes on to talk about concerns surrounding the "procurement" of bodies and organs and the process required legally in the United States to obtain said bodies or body parts…most of these laws DO NOT exists in other countries.
In fact, even here in good ol’ King County/Seattle, sometimes these laws are not followed. I offer this article http://www.kirotv.com/news/4335506/detail.html from one of our local TV stations as proof. The gist of the article surrounds the local Medical Examiner’s Office (ME) SELLING THE BRAINS of deceased schizophrenics to a research facility in Maryland. AND, it seems my local ME is not the only agency nationwide who has been profiting from these sales…all without the expressed consent of the patient or even family at times. Take a moment to give it a read and THEN begin to worry about how your body may be treated after death!
And still, there is another fascinating article (if you’re interested in this topic, that is) from the Miami Times, in which a play-by-play account is offered regarding each display in the exhibit: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/Issues/2006-10-05/culture/art_full.html . It DOES contain some fairly graphic reading, so if you’ve got a queasy stomach, you might consider skipping the article.
The article also touches on the possibility the display "specimens" (for lack of a better scientific word) may have come from persons jailed in China who practice/follow the principles of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that has been banned and outlawed in Communist China. The followers of Falun Gong claim thousands have been persecuted and even murdered in China for following this practice…noting three labor camps are very near the corpse-processing factory where specimens are processed via a procedure called, "Plastination"…the exact place where The Bodies Exhibit specimens were obtained.
So…what was MY take on the matter/exhibit/display? Well, it’s really quite complicated to explain, but I’ll try!
Several friends "warned" me I should NOT go to this exhibit and I should NOT give the exhibit my precious $29.50 because doing so was simply promoting something unethical and morally "wrong". This only made me more curious because I tend to be a hands-on, do it myself, see for myself, DECIDE for myself kind of person. But, I took their concerns into consideration and I went anyway. I was aware of the ethical controversy.
Scientifically speaking only, I would have to say this exhibit was/is truly remarkable and an amazement. The intricacies and details displayed are truly something never seen before and, for most people (unless you worked on cadavers in secondary schooling or, dare I say, have had reason to "carve" on a human being) something that can barely be conceptualized. The educational factor is quite high…one could not enter and exit the exhibit without learning "something". The entire process of plastination in itself is absolute fascinating science. I would highly recommend the exhibit for someone deep in the study of anatomy and physiology.
Ethically and morally speaking, I am not without concern as to the origins of the bodies on display. I DO hope none of these bodies, when they were alive and containing the souls of living beings, were mistreated or simply "harvested" for the sake of the exhibit. But I have no way of knowing WHAT might be true about that. Still I wonder…after seeing so much in the news about the SALE of organs and tissues here in the USA for PROFIT and done so illegally, I can’t help but believe countries with even less strict laws would not be doing the same. Because it happens in my own back yard however, I don’t dare point an unknowing finger at ANYONE or group until the facts are in…facts that we may never have.
Along these same lines, I will admit I was a bit "shaken" by the fetal/newborn section of the display. Certainly I was tastefully warned what was to come near the end of the exhibit…a large sign warned me and gave me the option of exiting through another door rather than continuing on through this portion of the tour…being who I am, I pressed forward.
What I saw next, gave me pause…I was somewhat taken aback by my own internal response to viewing preserved fetuses in glass containers. After all, I am a strong advocate of personal choice and have even volunteered my nursing services at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Houston when I lived there…I did post abortion room recovery (one day, if interested, perhaps I will write about THAT experience and my life of death threats and threats of assault/being spit on in the name of "Jesus and the right to life"…obviously just not MY life had a right to go on!).
This room of the exhibit had a very eerie feeling…maybe that’s why the exhibitors saved it for almost last. People somberly filed through the room, unlike through the other rooms of displays, as if passing through a graveyard. It FELT like a graveyard. I peered mindlessly, but not without feeling, at the 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, and 24 week fetal tissue displays. Even at 9 weeks, tiny little hands and feet could be seen on what otherwise looked like a tadpole with extensions…but there was no mistaking the hands and feet…they were definitely there.
I am NOT pro-abortion, but I AM pro-education, pro-criminal justice, and pro-choice. And when the latter three of the four "pros" fail, abortion is sometimes left standing alone. I do not condone abortion, but I also do not condemn it. Perhaps if more adolescents, sexually active men and women, and JUDGES were forced to walk through this portion of The Bodies Exhibit, there would be no need for this topic to remain such a heated discussion…there would be no need for further abortions or death and bomb threats against clinics…people would remember there simply is no mistaking the hands and feet…
As I wondered through the main portions of the exhibit, my friend "T" and I came across a rather tall, somewhat out of place cadaver…this specimen did not seem to fit in with the others. We both stood staring at "him" as hackles rose on our necks…something energetically felt wrong about "him". Not knowing what the other was thinking, we reconvened away from "him" and began to whisper to each other…
"He’s creepin’ me out", T says, and I shiver as something creeped up my spine also. We both began to discuss our "hit" on "him" and decided "he" had done something really bad when "his" soul inhabited "his" body…there was something sinister about the energy around "him". "He" was the first of such psychic/energetic awarenesses.
As I made my way through the rest of the exhibit, I would find myself wondering about the souls no longer in their vessels…the vessels we call our bodies. What were they like? Where did they come from? Had someone loved them and they returned that love? How did they die? Did they now rest peacefully? Would they approve of their plastic flesh, bones, and organs being on display for all the world to see? Would I approve of my flesh, bones, and organs being filleted and examined by total strangers if I had a choice?
I left The Bodies Exhibit with a lot to consider…