The Modern Display of Cadavers

Our reading of Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson, as well as our ensuing class discussion, raised important questions regarding the morality of using the bodies of non-consenting humans as anatomical models for the purposes of medical academia. As we know, Marilyn Nelson used a series of poems to describe the story of Fortune, whose slave owner used his corpse for anatomical research, and whose bones have been displayed publically for over 200 years. As we discussed in class, the United States has a dark history of using the bodies of former slaves for the purposes of dissection for medical research. It wasn’t until recently that I began to consider our modern-day system for obtaining human bodies for these purposes.

A 2006 NPR article written by Neda Ulaby discusses a traveling exhibition called Body Worlds, which exhibits dissected bodies that have been preserved through plastination, a process invented by Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist. (Ulaby, 2006) According to the FAQ on the exhibition’s website, (Link) the bodies being displayed have all been donated by consenting organ donors. However, Neda Ulaby’s article provided evidence for the contrary. According to her, U.S. customs officers seized over 200 brain samples and 56 bodies being sent to Gunther von Hagens’ laboratory from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy in 2001. The remains were traced back to a medical examiner based in Russia, who had previously been convicted of illegally selling the remains of prisoners and the homeless. Von Hagens never received criminal charges, and maintains that the bodies were legally obtained.

While Body Worlds still claims to only use the corpses of consenting donors, the same cannot be said for their competitor, BODIES: The Exhibition. Ulaby’s article states that Roy Glover, the spokesman for the exhibition, has publicly stated that it receives its bodies from China from unwilling prisoners. In fact, a public disclaimer on its website states that the exhibition “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”, with respect to their dissected bodies, organs, and fetuses. (Link)

I found myself shocked when I first read of this, as these exhibits still display bodies across the U.S. today and have been highly regarded by medical professionals and academics as an incredibly useful teaching tool, according to Ulaby. As a current anatomy student, I certainly understand the value of using cadavers and dissected models as a resource for students to understand the underlying parts of the body. While this is true, I cannot imagine myself feeling comfortable inspecting the corpses of non-consenting donors, who may or may not have been executed in Chinese prisons as a political dissident, as Ulaby asserts that human-rights groups based in China have claimed that this is a possibility.

It was the two exhibits that caused me to reflect upon our prior reading of Fortunes Bones. In Nelson’s first poem of the story, Dinah’s Lament, Fortune’s wife was portrayed as having been forced to broom and clean around her husband’s remains. (Nelson, 2004)  As I read about modern traveling exhibitions of dissected bodies with questionable origins, it has reminded me of Nelson’s description of Fortune in the preface, as a man who was stripped of his flesh as well as his name and story. In the context of the theme of our class, this story acted as a reflection of the inhumane acts that occurred over 200 years ago. Just as Fortune’s name and story had been stripped away from him by his owner, these modern exhibitions still display bodies of non-consenting persons, without any publicly available records or documentation regarding the body’s origins. Until these records are available, I believe these present-day exhibits are raising serious moral questions, which strongly parallel those raised in Fortune’s Bones. Does any person have the right to mutilate and display the body of someone who hasn’t consented? Before reading of these exhibits, I believed the common consensus amongst the U.S. population would be a “no” to this question.