"Real Human Bodies," boast the billboards all over Pittsburgh, assuring us that the corpses in Bodies ... The Exhibition, at the Carnegie Science Center, were once living beings. Surely that's a large part of the allure for this hit show. So when Premier Exhibitions Inc., the company that created Bodies, got the plastinated cadavers shipped to the U.S. from China, their country of origin, of course they were labeled as corpses, right?
Apparently not. Recently, ABC's 20/20 confronted Premier CEO Arnie Geller with shipping documents that, for federal customs purposes, listed the unclaimed dead bodies as "plastic models for medical teaching," making them easier to import. In the 20/20 report, which aired Feb. 15, Geller said, "I think they are plastic models, technically."
Dead humans reborn as plastic models for shipping purposes, then wondrously reincarnated as "real bodies" for billboards ... chalk it up to the magic of science.
The Science Center insists that the exhibit has educational value and imparts such groundbreaking lessons as eat right, exercise, don't smoke. But none of the bodies were donated willingly by their owners, and there have long been suspicions that some of the bodies belonged to executed political prisoners.
That's a charge for which 20/20 correspondent Brian Ross also found evidence in his three-month investigation. China's Dalian Medical University, where Premier claims it acquired its bodies, denied to 20/20 that it supplied them. Instead, Ross traced the source to a rundown warehouse complex 30 miles from the university, where the company manager said he that didn't know where the bodies came from.
Ross also interviewed a Chinese source -- who goes unnamed, and whose face is never shown -- who provided photos of recently executed political prisoners and said that he had delivered the black-market bodies to the processing facility that supplied Premier. (New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has subpoenaed Premier seeking information about its sourcing of the bodies.)
The 20/20 episode was the latest in a series of jabs at Bodies and shows like it. (Atlanta-based Premier is one of several companies in the trade.) In January, Fiona Ma, a California assemblywoman from San Francisco, introduced a bill to ban such exhibits unless exhibitors can prove the deceased gave permission for their bodies to appear in for-profit shows. Premier, for instance, says it doesn't know the identities of its bodies, and accepts the word of its Chinese supplier that they were obtained legally.
Ma cites how Chinese culture reverences the dead, and frowns upon even organ donation. Her bill was approved by California's State Assembly on Jan. 24, and awaits action by the state Senate.
A similar measure may be introduced in Pennsylvania. State Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican from Juniata County, announced plans to propose a bill regulating such exhibits. Citing the 20/20 special, Fleck told The Sentinel newspaper that Bodies was "like Nazism or Fascism [by] putting bodies on display without consent.
"People want to call it educational, but let's call it as it is," Fleck added. "If it were in a movie or on TV, it would be rated."
Meanwhile, on Jan. 28, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, Daniel Pilarczyk, prohibited Catholic school trips to the Cincinnati Bodies show in its 117-school territory. "The public exhibition of plasticized bodies, unclaimed, unreverenced, and unidentified ... is unseemly and inappropriate," said Pilarczyk.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has been less strident. Last year, as the Science Center publicized the exhibit's October opening, the diocese issued a statement saying that Bodies "can provide worthwhile and effective opportunities to promote learning and to explore issues in the natural sciences, morality and spirituality." The statement was positive enough to be included in the Bodies press kit. But the day after the 20/20 report appeared, diocese spokesman Father Ronald Lengwin was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review contending that the diocese had not offered an endorsement of the show ... because its statement had cautioned it "is certainly not appropriate for all audiences."
When CP asked Lengwin about Pilarczyk's ruling, he responded, "Not all bishops look at things the same way."
So far, however, none of these setbacks have hurt the bottom line. In the third quarter of last year alone, Premier made $14.5 million from 10 touring Bodies shows. The Carnegie Science Center says Bodies has drawn more than 150,000 visitors; the show runs until May 4. Exhibit-goers' consciences, meanwhile, remained undisturbed: In the wake of the 20/20 broadcast, says the Science Center, attendance held steady.
- Illustration by Jon MacNair