Archive for Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Exhibit pits education against ethical concerns

March 5, 2008

I regard the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit at Union Station somewhat the same way that Henry David Thoreau regarded the telegraph in the 19th century.

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things," Thoreau wrote. "They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York." He continued, "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

"Bodies Revealed" opened Friday at Union Station and continues there through Sept. 1. The exhibit features whole bodies, preserved in a special polymer process, plus many individual organs or separate pieces to demonstrate bodily functions or the effects of disease. Some of the bodies are arranged in athletic poses riding a bicycle or swinging a baseball bat, for example. Others are cut apart in individual sections.

Despite concerns raised about the ethics of flaying human bodies, suffusing them with plastic and placing the resulting creation on public view in the hopes of making a substantial profit, the exhibit is educational. That is, one can look at the displays and form a better understanding of how our skeletons and muscles go together, of how the organs are arranged therein, and how the circulatory and neural networks supply and govern the body. The respiratory, digestive and urinary systems are also explained. A separate room within the exhibit is devoted to fetal development, and shows fetuses obtained from women who died while pregnant in different stages of development.

Given that everyone even me agrees that the display is educational, it is also instructive in illustrating the lengths to which people will go, and the questions they are willing to shrug off.

Just because it is possible to do something doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea. True, the exhibit does demonstrate the operations of the circulatory system or the digestive system, but surely there are other methods of imparting that information, even to the extent of furnishing working models.

The principal effect of using a plasticized human body to impart this information is to strengthen the "wow" factor that is, the extent to which someone who sees it is likely to say, "wow." While this may produce an immediate effect maybe even a lasting impression on children and adolescents, I question whether it makes much difference with medical students, or those who need more than a layman's understanding.

Finally we come to the question of consent. Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, the company that mounted the exhibition, says that all the bodies used in "Bodies Revealed" were those of people who willingly and knowingly chose to donate their bodies to science. These people made their donations to accredited medical universities in the Peoples Republic of China. A laboratory in Nanjing processed the bodies.

One cannot but wonder just how informed this consent was. It's one thing to donate your body to science; quite another to have it preserved and put up on public view. The fact that all this happened in China, a nation that has, to put it mildly, something of a troubled record with respect to human rights, only adds to the questions.

Part of the concern also stems from Premier Exhibitions' admission that specimens used in another company show, "Bodies : the Exhibition," may be from unclaimed or unidentified bodies.

Educational "Bodies Revealed" may be, but that by itself is not enough to overcome serious questions raised about the ethics of the exhibit and the nature of the consent that donors gave.

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