Who Were They?
The ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vermont, in partnership with the University of Vermont College of Medicine,can't demonstrate that the plastinated Chinese bodies it is exhibiting ever consented to be part of such a commercial display. A doctor associated with the show said the bodies are those of Chinese prisoners. This article by John Briggs was published in the Burlington Free Press May 13, 2012.
The “plastinated” human bodies on display this spring and summer at Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center have drawn crowds wherever they’ve been exhibited, and ECHO officials hope for the same result in Burlington.
The origins of the bodies, however, are shrouded in a degree of uncertainty in a trail of paperwork leading all the way to China, numerous interviews and a review of documents show. In recent interviews, ECHO officials could not provide clear evidence that consent was ever given by the individuals on display, and the man listed as the show’s medical consultant says that certainly was not the case.
Nonetheless, ECHO’s leaders said they were satisfied with the level of documentation about the source of the bodies, which are of indeterminate age and are not identified by name.
ECHO, partnering with the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine for the five-month show, has relied on a statement from the Chinese supplier of the bodies that asserts the individuals are not “executed prisoners.” This statement quotes Chinese practice for body donations, which states donors or their families “are clearly told” the bodies will be used “for medical research and educational purposes.” The statement does not indicate whether the individuals in the show had the ability to withhold their consent.
ECHO is the premier family-oriented science center in the state and region, operating in a building that bears the name of Vermont’s senior U.S. senator, Patrick Leahy. ECHO Executive Director Phelan Fretz told the Burlington Free Press that the human bodies on display offer “an extraordinary experience” to visitors and notes that the exhibition is soberly educational in tone. The ECHO show does not tell visitors to the show where the individuals lived, how they died, or how they came to be placed on exhibit.
ECHO and its board are “satisfied” that the partially dissected individuals were acquired legally, Fretz said. And, he said, “Everything we know is that informed consent was given.”
The Our Body and similar shows have been banned or faced restrictions over the consent issue in some jurisdictions including Hawaii and Seattle. New York state a few years ago, under the leadership of then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, forced a financial settlement with one exhibition company because clear consent to display the bodies did not exist.
That issue was raised locally by Tsering Yangkyi Cummings, who is originally from Tibet. She wrote the Burlington Free Press of her concerns shortly after the April 14 opening of the show, following a front-page article that did not raise the issue of consent.
Cummings said she and her husband, Chris, saw a similar show a few years ago in Montreal and subsequently heard allegations – often discussed in media reports of recent years — that those being displayed were political prisoners. “It is disappointing that ECHO failed to do their homework and fully disclose the origin of the bodies,” the couple said in an email to the Burlington Free Press. “By having this display, ECHO (even blindly/unknowingly) takes a stand in support of the Chinese government and its ill practices towards human freedoms.”
FreePressMedia, which publishes the Burlington Free Press, partners with ECHO and is a media sponsor of the show.
When the Free Press first asked ECHO who the individuals on display are and whether they consented to be part of a commercial exhibition, ECHO described the documentation it had scrutinized as “confidential.”
In a subsequent interview, the person listed by the ECHO show’s marketing company as its medical consultant, Dr. Walter Hofman of Pennsylvania, told the Burlington Free Press he’d concluded after examining the bodies and the documentation in 2007 that the consent of the individuals to be displayed was unnecessary, because they are under “the aegis” of the Chinese government. The individuals died in Chinese prisons or other institutions, he said he’s concluded.
At that point, ECHO provided copies of the documentation on which it relied as the show was being put together over a period of two years.
A cadaver cut into cross-sections is displayed at the new exhibit: Our Body, The Universe Within, at the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington on Friday April 13, 2012. / EMILY McMANAMY, Free Press
‘No consent forms’
Asked whether ECHO had evidence that contradicted Hofman’s assertion and whether his contention that they could have been prisoners was a concern, ECHO’s Fretz responded in writing, “All the materials we received from Dr. Hofman and the ASTF indicate the specimens were secured legally and appropriately.... Nothing we have received from Dr. Hofman, or the exhibit company, indicated the specimens were prisoners.”
ECHO spokeswoman Gerianne Smart said ECHO has not spoken directly with Hofman.
While Fretz said ECHO believes consent was given, Smart acknowledged that the science center has no direct evidence that is true.
“We saw no consent forms,” she said. “The (statement) said informed consent was given for medical research and exhibition. I was assuming this was legitimate.”
“Certainly,” Smart said when asked if ECHO had been aware before opening the show of ethical questions raised elsewhere. “We believe the specimens were acquired through appropriate legal means. We went with that. We had to go with what we had.”
The UVM College of Medicine, which has provided medical specialists for Thursday night lectures on the bodies and parts in the show, said in a statement it has “seen no evidence” that the bodies in the show were obtained improperly.
Frederick Morin, dean of the College of Medicine, in response to further questions from the Burlington Free Press, said, “All the evidence we have seen indicates that the anatomical specimens in Our Body were acquired legally and appropriately, even by Vermont standards, and we have seen no evidence to the contrary.”
“Human bodies,” Morin said, “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
ECHO’s Smart said the College of Medicine was provided the same documentation that Studio 2 gave ECHO.
ECHO Executive Director Fretz’s responses paralleled those of other institutions that have mounted the show and were interviewed by the Free Press. He said that beyond the documentation provided by the company that provided the bodies, ECHO vetted the exhibition by speaking with “sister organizations concerning the extraordinary experience it provided their guests.” ECHO and ECHO’s board, he said, were impressed with the “quality (and) non-sensational presentation” of the bodies by the vendor, the Minnesota-based company Studio 2 Productions.
Studio 2 will receive a substantial portion of the gate receipts from the show, Fretz said.
Heidi Pinchal, the spokeswoman for Studio 2, described the documentation on the source of the bodies as confidential. She said ECHO had been provided with evidence that Studio 2 “had a clean provenance on the bodies.” They were “donated for purposes of medical education.” The documentation, she said, “is confidential information that we allow each institution to vet.”
Tracking the documentation
The complete documentation Studio 2 provided ECHO is contained in two records:
An affidavit marked “confidential” on the stationery of The Universe Within Touring Co., based in Boca Raton, Fla., prepared in August 2007 by Hofman, the show’s medical consultant. He is currently the coroner and medical examiner for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Philadelphia.
Hofman said in the affidavit he examined all of the bodies then on display with the Our Body show at the New Detroit Science Center (since closed for financial reasons) and the Orlando Science Center. “At no time did I see any evidence of any trauma or physical abuse associated with torture or execution.” he said in the affidavit.
The document continued: “It is my understanding that all of the anatomical specimens contained in the Our Body exhibit were obtained legally, consistent with the Laws of China and the United States.” The Hofman affidavit did not provide documentation of the legal source of the bodies or provide consent documentation for those on display.
A document, dated April 17, 2008, from the Anatomical Sciences and Technologies Foundation, Hong Kong. The statement describes the ASTF as a non-profit organization headquartered in China and affiliated with the Chinese Society for Anatomical Science in Beijing.
It says the bodies come from “various accredited Chinese universities, medical schools, medical institutions, research centers and laboratories for the goal of the ASTF.” It provides no documentation of its assertions.
The five-page document says the ASTF has “granted the Universe Within Project, Ltd., Hong Kong, the worldwide rights to present, market and exhibit an exhibition of anatomical specimens known as Our Body: The Universe Within”— the show currently at ECHO.
“The specimens, died of natural causes, are not ‘executed prisoners’ as sometimes, wrong mentioned in several medias,” the translated document states. “There was never found any evidence of trauma or bodily injury caused by torture or execution – as stated by forensic pathologists.”
The Chinese Society for Anatomical Science describes itself on its Web page as being “under the leadership of the Communist Party of China national academic organization.” Its members, the self-description says in poorly translated English, “persist in seeking truth from facts” to “promote anatomical grow” to “accelerate the realization of the socialist modernization of our country to make the contribution.”
The Society in Beijing did not respond to an email request for an explanation of its relationship with the Hong Kong foundation and for a more detailed explanation of the source of the bodies on display at ECHO.
Here’s what Hofman, who examined the bodies five years ago, said in two interviews:
Initially, he said the individuals had been prisoners in China, an assertion for which he provided no evidence. “These are bodies that are the property of the Chinese government,” he said.
In a second interview, he said some of the bodies could have come from Chinese “institutions.” In Hofman’s understanding, consent by the individuals to be displayed is a “non-issue. It has nothing to do with consent,” he said. “The individuals didn’t give permission to be used as exhibits. They are on lease.”
Hofman is listed as “medical consultant” in the $10 book produced by Studio 2 that ECHO has for sale in conjunction with the show. He said he was unaware that he was cited in that way and said he has not seen the book.
Pinchal, the Studio 2 spokeswoman, initially told the Free Press that the bodies are “on loan to us” but said later that Studio 2 has them “on a lease arrangement.” She would not discuss the lease arrangement, saying that Studio 2 “is a private organization. Their financial information,” she said, “is not available to the public.”
Cadavers on display at the new exhibit: Our Body, The Universe Within, at the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington on Friday April 13, 2012. / EMILY McMANAMY, Free Press
Pinchal was previously the vice president for marketing of the Orlando Science Center and helped to arrange the Our Body exhibit there in 2006 — the first such exhibit under that name — according to Jeff Stanford, who currently holds the marketing position.
Pinchal subsequently began working for the company marketing the display.
Stanford said the Orlando center relied on “documents and affidavits saying the bodies were obtained legally” before mounting its “very successful” exhibit. “We did talk to peer institutions about how they had done,” he said, “and we talked to community leaders to get feedback. It went before our board of directors. There was a lot of discussion, both internally and externally.”
The exhibit, he said, doubled attendance for the year it was at the Orlando Center.
In 2010, the Our Body exhibit was featured at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, Austin. In a news release in April 2010, Dr. Terry Todd, the center’s director, described it as a “stunning presentation that is central to our mission to help the public appreciate the value of exercise and healthful living practices.”
Todd told the Free Press that “UT legal” examined Studio 2’s documentation and did not raise any objections to the show. He said the Stark Center also spoke to other institutions which had hosted the show. “They all indicated they had done some checking and were satisfied,” he said.
Asked whether those on display had consented to be displayed, Todd said, “Other people spent more time examining that. No one had any problems with that. Whatever questions needed to be asked, were asked.”
The Our Body show has also appeared at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the L.A. County Fair in Pomona, California and the Arizona State Fair, where fairgoers were cautioned that the show “does contain actual human bodies, with eyes and genitals intact.”
Human rights advocates
The origins of the bodies have proved to be of concern to human-rights advocates and others concerned about freedoms in China.
Tsering Yangkyi Cummings, the Tibetan immigrant, told the Burlington Free Press, “I would not trust any ‘certified’ body coming from China, no matter what kind of documentation they may claim to have.”
Her concerns were echoed by Harry Wu, who was imprisoned for 19 years in the Chinese “laogai,” that country’s vast forced labor program. Wu now heads the Laogai Research Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C.
“This is not like a computer show,” Wu said of the Our Body show. “This is showing a human. Who are these people?”
Wu told the Burlington Free Press that even if Chinese law approved the display of the bodies without explicit consent, the origin of the bodies should be of concern to Americans. “They even deserve their rights,” he said of the dead persons in the display.
“What is Chinese law?” he said. “They can do whatever they can do. If the body was offered by Chinese police, I do not know where the body is from. If American want to see it, fine, but this is not like a computer. It was alive sometimes. Approved by the government? What government? The Chinese government. I think if all these plasticized bodies is black, blacks would protest.”
The Our Body show was shut down by judicial order in France in 2009 after two human rights groups objected to the display.
In 2008, then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with Premier Exhibitions, another company displaying plastinated Chinese individuals. The settlement required the company to refund the cost of admission to those disturbed by the murky provenance of the bodies.
The settlement also required the exhibitor to post a sign saying they were “not able to confirm that the bodies and parts being displayed were not, or did not belong to, Chinese victims who may have been victims of torture and execution.”
“Despite repeated denials,” Cuomo said as the settlement was announced, “we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner. Respect for the dead and respect for the public requires that Premier do more than simply assure us there is no reason for concern.”
That settlement drew praise from Wu’s Laogai Research Foundation. Assistant Director Kirk Donahoe said that it meant that “it is now less likely that Premier and its competitors will obtain specimens from China for display not just in New York, but anywhere in the United States.”
In 2009, also in reaction to the lack of documentation Premier Exhibitions was able to provide, Hawaii banned the exhibition for profit of human bodies.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, from St. Louis, introduced a bill in 2010 to prohibit the importation of plasticized human bodies, on human rights grounds, following a request from Wu.
“His statements and concerns informed our concerns,” said Steve Taylor, Akin’s spokesman, noting that several companies now have such displays in the United States. “It’s been my experience that reputable organizations contract (for the shows) seemingly without considering these concerns,” he said. “It’s the standard of documentation that has proven problematic. There’s little to disabuse us of the notion it could be a body of a political prisoner.”
The Akin bill did not pass.
In Seattle, however, the City Council in July 2010, responding to concerns about whether informed consent was provided by those on display or their families, prohibited “the public commercial display of dead human bodies” without “evidence of informed consent specific to the public exhibition.”
According to “Bodies on Display,” a Laogai Research Foundation report in July 2010, the San Francisco County health department closed a “Universe Within” show after then-County Supervisor Fiona Ma became concerned about leaks of body fluids. After her election to the State Assembly, legislation requiring clear documentation of consent by those on display or their relatives passed the Assembly and state Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Laogai Foundation quoted Ma in its report: “As a Chinese-American,” she said, “I know that few people in China would voluntarily donate their organs or bodies due to the strong cultural and traditional preference of leaving their body intact for burial after death. So when I saw the exhibit, I knew something was wrong.”
Cadavers on display at the new exhibit: Our Body, The Universe Within, at the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington on Friday April 13, 2012. / EMILY McMANAMY, Free Press
“Since the 1980s,” the Laogai Foundation says in the summary of its report, “the Chinese government has directly profited from the trade in organs harvested from executed prisoners. The advent of ‘plastination’ ... has allowed the Chinese Communist regime to profit from the dead in another way.” (China said in March it would no longer harvest organs from executed prisoners.)
In Pittsburgh earlier this year, Elaine Catz, an 11-year employee of the Carnegie Science Center, resigned when the center scheduled a seven-month show called Bodies... The Exhibit, staged by Premier Exhibitions — the company Cuomo dealt with in New York.
“We don’t know how these people died or why they died,” she was quoted as saying by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Before we put our stamp of approval on it, there should be a high burden of proof on Premier.”
Canadian international human rights attorney David Matas failed in his attempt in 2011 to close a display of plastinated bodies at the MTS Centre, a sports venue in Winnipeg. “There’s big money to be made from this,” he told the Burlington Free Press. “The (marketing) companies turn a blind eye to the sources. It’s not up to me to prove the sources; it’s up to them to prove the origin. Anyone who accepts these bodies from China is accepting the word of the police, and that’s just not acceptable.”
Matas said it is “not a coincidence” that the exhibit has now appeared in a small town like Burlington. “Comparable exhibits ran into trouble in big cities,” he said. “They’re looking for soft targets.”
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