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Art: Panel gives Bodies a once over

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Most of the controversy over the Carnegie Science Center's Bodies ... The Exhibition involves the origin of the flayed human corpses and other body parts on display. The debate has intensified following a recent installment of ABC's 20/20 presenting new evidence for a longstanding suspicion that the unclaimed cadavers, all from China, include those of executed political prisoners.

But at Pittsburgh's first public forum on the ethics of the exhibition, the show's harshest critics objected to any public display of human corpses for commercial gain, in some cases regardless of whether the "bodies" had given their consent -- which none of these Bodies bodies had.

"There's something that's inherently wrong with using human bodies in this way," said Alan Meisel, head of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Bioethics and Health Law, and one of eight guests on the Feb. 28 special edition of WQED-TV newsmagazine OnQ. Meisel agreed with panelist and Science Center director Joanna E. Haas that the exhibit has educational value; but, he argued, so did circus sideshows, whose ethics we once didn't question.

"There seems to be this presumption that if you have an unclaimed body, you have carte blanche to do with it as you please," said panelist Rabbi Dan Schiff. "Once we say that the human body can be used for whatever we choose ... it loses its sanctity."

Schiff, of the Agency for Jewish Learning, is an outspoken critic of the internationally touring exhibit produced by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, Inc., which opened here in October and has drawn some 170,000 visitors. "What kind of a society is it that slices up the dead and uses them in a display?" said Schiff on OnQ, which aired in an extended, 90-minute version (at least on its cable outlets and Web site) with a studio audience of about 25. Later, implicitly referencing Nazi death camps, Schiff assailed the exhibit for turning humans "into objects, like lampshades."

Bodies and real-corpse shows like it face new opposition. Besides the 20/20 revelations, there is a state's attorney general probe in New York. Meanwhile, legislation requiring the informed consent of cadaver donors is proposed in California and shortly to be proposed in Pennsylvania.

While OnQ moderator Chris Moore said that Premier didn't honor a request to represent itself on the panel, the Science Center's Haas had company in promoting the exhibit's benefits. Both Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams and Jim Weber, a Duquesne University professor of business ethics and management, contended that Bodies -- whose displays include a set of blackened smokers' lungs -- can teach audiences valuable lessons about caring for their own bodies.

Haas, meanwhile, said the Science Center took every precaution to ascertain that the unwitting corpse donors had died of natural causes, and that Premier had obtained them legally. She called 20/20's findings "speculation."

But Pitt's Meisel said the burden of proof about the body's source should fall on the presenters, and that Premier hadn't met it, especially given China's record of human-rights abuses. "The fact that there's a reasonable doubt here is troubling," said Scott Miller, medical-ethics chief of Allegheny General Hospital's Allegheny University of the Health Sciences.

The panel also included Father Jim Wehner, the rector of St. Paul Seminary, and another seemingly curious pick: Pittsburgh Police Assistant Chief of Investigations Maurita Bryant. Bryant noted that the families of murder victims are greatly concerned for the bodies: "They feel their loved one needs to be protected." She added that she hadn't seen the exhibit. "I've seen enough bodies up close and personal that I wasn't curious."

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