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By Trevor Stammers

Earlier this year, the Real Bodies exhibition in Birmingham’s NEC attracted thousands of visitors and last month Body Worlds, a rival collection of plastinated cadavers opened in a permanent display in London.

The website of Imagine Exhibitions proclaims that “REAL BODIES takes visitors on a journey asking them to explore who they are, where they come from..” The exhibitors may not be so keen however for visitors to inquire where the actual bodies on display came from as I discovered at a meeting at the House of Commons recently  where I heard that many of them are from China and may have been tortured prisoners of conscience whose remains have been plastinated without their consent.

Researching both exhibitions online adding the word ‘Chinese’ certainly reveals a very different picture from that presented on their official sites. As far back as 2004, Prof Gunther Von Hagens, the founder of Body Worlds admitted that at that time, bodies used in his exhibition may have come from executed Chinese prisoners and returned seven bodies to China for burial.  Von Hagens’ body processing plant for plastination is located in Dalien, close to three prison camps for Chinese political prisoners many of whom are members of the banned Falun Gong movement.  Similar exhibitions to Body Worlds have been banned in France, Israel and the Czech Republic.

Following a court case in New York in 2008, a Bodies exhibition there was eventually forced to issue a disclaimer stating that “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.” Tom Zaller the spokesperson for the exhibitors in the New York case is now president of the company behind the recent Real Bodies exhibition in Birmingham. Responding to a complaint from a consultant neurologist to the Birmingham coroner concerning allegations of these bodes having been Chinese prisoners, Mr Zaller was reported as saying "All of the specimens on display in our exhibition are unclaimed bodies. In order to qualify as an unclaimed body, the police will not have been able to identify or locate a next of kin." View BBC News article...

Whilst the absence of proof of consent from the deceased to use the bodies for public exhibition and the close proximity of the sourcing of the cadavers to a medical school near to the prison camps cannot prove that Chinese prisoners are actually being displayed in current exhibitions in the UK, it does leave unanswered questions and certainly will take the shine of the entertainment value of such exhibitions unless the public can be categorically assured that that are not paying to view the plastinated corpses of prisoners of conscience.  Some people may of course respond with “What does it matter anyway? They are dead and the dead can’t be harmed?” However the dead can be still be wronged and displays of executed dissidents rather than consenting adults sounds like it may be such a wrong - at least to this bioethicist.