SCOTTSDALE – Nearly 200 human bodies, stripped of skin and hair to reveal muscle, bone and sinew, line dimly lit galleries at the Odysea Aquarium. Visitors gaze at stomachs, livers and hearts placed like books on shelves, offering lessons from the dead that exhibit supporters sponsors and supporters say could lead to better health for the living.
But a religious group with roots in China and other opponents of the exhibit “Bodies Revealed” deliver a different educational message: For nearly two decades, the Falun Dafa for have raised ethical questions about the origins of the exhibit. They claim the cadavers on display in Scottsdale, in an exhibit that has traveled around the world, are of Chinese prisoners who were persecuted for their religious beliefs and did not consent to having their remains preserved.
The bodies – some sliced into halves, others divided into thirds – have drawn thousands of paying customers in Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., as well as protests.
“If somebody that’s a prisoner is in a vulnerable population, they’re not in a position to be able to donate their organs,” said Dr. Glynn Gilcrease, deputy director of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting.
“In the United States, we’ve had people on death row that quickly want to donate their organs and try to essentially atone for things that they’ve done wrong,” he said. “But I also think it’s important to note that the Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners of conscience aren’t people that have been condemned to death.”
Consent surrounding donations to museums and other facilities is emerging as an ethical consideration, whether of African artwork in France, works from the Holocaust or the cadavers in such shows as “Bodies Revealed.” And, in the case of “Bodies Revealed,” where those works are human bodies, the ethical stakes are exacerbated by issues of power, religious persecution and public responsibility.
Ethical questions raised by opponents center on the bodies’ origins, claims of forced organ harvesting and lack of consent.
“It’s such a complex problem located in a new form of genocide and a new criminal act by the Chinese Communist Party, that it doesn’t have a simple answer,” Gilcrease said.
Paying customers and protests
“Bodies Revealed” has displayed 200 bodies and other body specimens to at least 2 million customers in such cities as New York, Miami and Las Vegas since debuting in Tampa, Florida, in 2005, according to the website for Premier Exhibitions, which organizes traveling exhibitions.
Hundreds of customers have paid as much as $20 to view the yearlong exhibit in Scottsdale since it opened last May.
The Scottsdale exhibit is divided into nine galleries so visitors start at the skeletal system, then move into the other eight areas, which include the muscular, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, urinary, and reproductive systems. There also is a fetal-development display in a separate section of the exhibition.
Each display section contains about 20 human bodies permanently preserved through a technique known as plastination, which German anatomist Gunther von Hagens discovered in 1977. The plastination process leaves the bodies in a dry, odorless and decayless state, sometimes resembling statues more than humans.
Some bodies are arranged to depict an everyday activity, such as riding a bike, playing poker or exercising. The exhibition also contains displays of stretched out human intestines, lungs polluted from years of smoking, and an array of arteries and veins showcased without muscle or bone.
Ethical questions started surfacing about inconsistent documentation of organ transplants and donations.
More ethical concerns arose a decade ago when “Body Worlds,” a similar exhibit to “Bodies Revealed,” featured a young mother and her unborn baby. (The tour discontinued that display). “Body Worlds” set up a donation and consent system but documentation for that exhibit also has been questioned.
Opponents began to ask questions: Who would donate the remains of a wife and unborn child to a paid exhibition? Where did these human specimens come from? How did they become exhibits?
Israel, France, Australia and Hawaii have banned the use of unclaimed or unidentified bodies, after being met by protests and condemnation. The Czech Republic changed its laws in 2017, meaning such an exhibition would no longer be allowed without written consent from the deceased.
Officials for Odysea, which is operated by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Premier, which is based in Atlanta, have declined several interview requests.
In a statement, Premiere officials said the exhibit helps educate the public about how to take better care of their health and make positive lifestyle choices; exhibit officials said they do not know whether they are of Chinese prisoners. The statement, which also is on the exhibit website, does not address the issue of consent.
In 2017, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting sent an open letter to Australian politicians. In it, the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China states there is “credible evidence” that the bodies may belong to “executed prisoners and prisoners of conscience from China.”
Practitioners of Falun Gong were singled out as the most likely victims. The group, also known as Falun Dafa, practice a spiritual exercise outlawed in China nearly two decades ago. It seeks to combine the “qigong,” a slow-moving Chinese exercise popular in the 1990s, with Taoist moral teachings.
In July 1999, the Falun Gong became China’s primary public enemy, according to the religious group’s website. Practitioners were sentenced to “reform through labor” camps, where they were starved, beaten and tortured with electric batons. By 2008, there were more than 3,000 documented cases of Falun Gong followers killed by state persecution, the group says.
Lili Jhang, a practitioner at Phoenix Dafa who was a member of the group in China, said she witnessed the persecution.
“In prison, these practitioners were prosecuted and after they were prosecuted, their bodies were sold out and were taken around the world to make a profit,” Jhang said.
The U.S. has a patchwork of policies in place to deal with body and organ donations, but experts said that isn’t the case in other countries. The legal market for body parts is haphazardly regulated. Some uses are reputable, such as continuing medical education through bioskills companies, while others are less so.
Jhang and Casati said the small number of Phoenix Dafa members who protested the Scottsdale exhibit when it opened last year were threatened with arrest if they didn’t leave. Their efforts did not stop the flow of customers.
“When you hear a bunch of statistics about an atrocity,” Gilcrease said, “it’s much harder to be moved to do something. When you try to detail something, like starvation in Africa, you show one person, you show one human being, and it’s easier to connect with that human being.
“The organ harvesting issue is difficult, because these people are incinerated, or they’re put into the bodies exhibits and they disappear. There’s no face to forced organ harvesting.”
Human rights and customer responsibility
Federal law in the U.S. requires tracking anything that happens to a body, including documenting identification as well as the time and place of death. However, according to Gilcrease and Jason Robert, an ethics professor at Arizona State University, once a Chinese prisoner dies, the name is changed or made anonymous, calling any data into question.
Robert, the Lincoln Chair in ethics and director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU, doubted that it ever could be proven that the humans whose remains are displayed in “Bodies Revealed” consented to the donations.
He said three human-rights experts conducted a study showing uncertainty “that there were careful records demonstrating that the bodies came from donors who willingly consented to have their remains displayed in these ways.”
Robert called it wrong legally and ethically to put unclaimed bodies on display, adding,
“These bodies are not a free-for-all upon death.”
Customers as well as the owners of such exhibits have an ethical responsibility, Robert said. People should research the societal and financial costs of such exhibits and any controversy surrounding them before they decide whether to buy a ticket, he said.
According to Robert, the first step to transparency lies with the consumer dollar.
“If an exhibit like this one is a financial flop, consumers will have had their say and perhaps this will discourage sites from further exhibiting similarly suspect exhibits in the future,” he said.
Phoenix Dafa leaders have switched from in-person protests to other approaches to raise public awareness, such as news releases and letters of protest to Arizona lawmakers.
So far, their efforts have had little visible effect. The exhibit runs through April 21.
– Video by Cronkite News reporter Ashley Carter.