Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Bodies:The Exhibition ... trying to think through this thing

I confess, the idea of going to see Bodies: The Exhibition creeps me out. This is, after all, an exhibit of real human bodies, cut open and displayed for all to see. For that reason alone, I've made the personal decision not to go. We all must know our limits, after all....

I keep thinking about that episode from Tales from the Crypt (Hey, I had to have some downtime in college...and Star Trek wasn't on 24/7). It's the one where Mimi Rogers plays an aging model named Helen who longs to hit the big time. Her roommate gets an invite to a certain beauty pageant, with a note "guaranteeing" that she'll win. In her jealous rage, Helen slips her roommate some sleeping pills so she'll oversleep on the day of the pagent...and accidently gives her too many (thus offing the roommate). When Helen arrives to take her place, she meets a beautiful contestant who is likely to be the real winner; not wanting to take chances, Helen offs the contestant as well...and she goes on to win the contest. Now, here's the Tales from the Crypt twisteroo....the contest was for Miss Autopsy. And so the closing scene shows a now deceased Helen, in gown and tiara, pinned to a giant rotating disc, and her body dissected like some 8th grade formaldehyde soaked frog.

Yeah....that's the mental image that stuck with me. See why I'm creeped out?

Beyond the macabre factor, this exhibt has stirred up some passionate discussion here in Cincy. Thus, I thought I'd throw in my two cents worth.

The controversey centers on two issues: human rights and the dignity of the human body.

Human Rights
The bodies used in the exhibit were obtained from the Chinese government, and all the dissection performed at the Dalian University in Laoning, China. The promotial literature from Premier Exhibitions (a publicly traded exhibition company) reassures that the bodies were obtained legally and that the individuals had died natural deaths. However they were unclaimed bodies...meaning that no next of kin had been there to take the remains of the deceased.

The main concern is that we have no way of knowing the origin of these corpses...China is not well known for their human rights record. From the Amnesty International 2007 report on China:

The death penalty continued to be used extensively to punish around 68 crimes, including economic and non-violent crimes. Based on public reports, AI estimated that at least 1,010 people were executed and 2,790 sentenced to death during 2006, although the true figures were believed to be much higher.

The National People's Congress passed a law reinstating a final review of all death penalty cases by the Supreme People's Court from 2007. Commentators believed this would lead to a reduction in miscarriages of justice and use of the death penalty.

Executions by lethal injection rose, facilitating the extraction of organs from executed prisoners, a lucrative business. In November a deputy minister announced that the majority of transplanted organs came from executed prisoners. In July new regulations banned the buying and selling of organs and required written consent from donors for organ removal.

• Xu Shuangfu, the leader of an unofficial Protestant group called "Three Grades of Servants", was executed along with 11 others in November after being convicted of murdering 20 members of another group, "Eastern Lightning", in 2003-4. Xu Shuangfu reportedly claimed that he had confessed under torture during police interrogation and that the torture had included beatings with heavy chains and sticks, electric shocks to the toes, fingers and genitals and forced injection of hot pepper, gasoline and ginger into the nose. Both the first instance and appeal courts reportedly refused to allow his lawyers to introduce these allegations as evidence in his defence.

While the Amnesty Report does mention some laudible progress, they still report chilling statistics....over 1000 executions.....an industry of organ harvesting from executed prisoners. Given the Chinese government's reputation for transparency and honesty, the reassurances regarding the Bodies Exhibition amount to squat. (see this New York Times Article going into greater depths on the "body harvesting" industry in China)

We're working through Isaiah right now on Sundays...the themes of justice come out clear in the first few chapters "Your hands ar efull of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." (1:16-17)...these challenges should lead us to examine our own society. But, since it is an American company staging these exhibitions and going to China and bringing them here to profit from ticket sales to us, then suddenly the problem of injustices in China don't seem so far away anymore.

Of course, the good that might come of this is attention for China's gross human rights violations. According to Voice of the Martyrs, China has jailed more Christian prisoners of conscience than any other country in the world. As the Beijing Olympics draws closer, we have an opportunity to offer more scrutiny to the operations of the Chinese government and to encourage them that it is indeed good business to be a more just society.

Dignity of the Human Body
The Local Catholic Bishop issued a statement that Catholic schools shouldn't be organizing trips to this exhibit, though the choice to attend was certainly in the hands of the parents. A primary concern is how the exhibit dehumanizes the human body. The idea is that such an exhibit treats us like lumps of meat...fit for taxidermy or fit for consumption, just like the Bass fish on our wall. And there's certainly a sense to this....though this is an educational event, it is also a showbiz spectacle put together to make money. Nothing wrong with making money, but when you treat human remains as yet another commodity that has to be factored into supply costs, then we seem to have crossed a line.

This even more so when we read about the next plans from the Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who pioneered this type of exhibition. Germany's Der Spiegel reports that he is offering private individuals the opportunities to purchase sliced cross sections of human remains:

Until now, he has only sold cross-sections, where plastinated organs are clearly visible, to universities as teaching materials. But now private individuals will be able to buy slices of corpses too. Von Hagens' assistant Nadine Diwersi told the newspaper: "We are able to quickly produce large quantities with high quality and for a good price."

A cross-section down the length of the body will cost €12,000 ($17,800), while a cross-section across the body will be priced at €250, or €1,600 for a 16-slice set. A typical corpse can produce eight vertical cross-sections or 230 horizontal cross-sections.

Honestly, that is way over the top. It's beyond the scope of the exhibition, but it seems to be a natural kind of merchandising of the concept.

However, there is a contrary perspective. I can very easily see how such an exhibit would lead us to cry out with David "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mothers' womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." (Ps 139:13-14). This could well be an opportunity for us to gape in awe and wonder at the complexity, the lovliness, the simply amazing workings of the human body...and to praise God for his design.

Interestingly, this seems to be exactly what the Cincinnati Museum Center wants us to ponder, for they have on their website an article by Josh Brahm of Georgia Right to Life. Brahm comments on one section of the exhibit that shows fetal development (from the preserved remains of miscarried children). You can see that a 10 week old fetus is really and truly a little child with little fingers and a little beating heart. This isn't some lump of protoplasm that can be readily disposed of because it is inconvenient. At 10 weeks, what is in the womb is clearly a child. Brahm comments on some of the Notes left at the customary "tell us what you think" notebook that is at the end of every special museum exhibit now:
"A strong case for the anti-abortion position.”
“I know life begins at conception.”
“…I don’t understand how someone could have an abortion after seeing all the embryos.”
“…I’m convinced that life begins far earlier than our society believes.”
“I really liked the part about the babies.” ~A young girl
“We truly are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
“I don’t know how you could not believe in God after seeing this exhibit.”
“I was fascinated with the fetuses – I did not know they were so well formed even at
seven weeks – who could ever abort a child?”
“There is no way I’m going to have an abortion…” ~A 12-year-old girl
Perhaps it's not so dehumanizing after all. Maybe, just maybe, this might be a teaching opportunity to help people wonder about the human body and our responsibility to care for it (the exhibit also shows a smoker's lung and a healthy lung). And that wondering may lead us ever more to praise our Father in heaven, and to seek forgiveness through our Redeemer Jesus Christ for the way we disregard God's wonderful creation.

Even so.....I'm still creeped out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Related topics:
Amnesty International calls for end to executions in China
Wikipedia article on Bodies: The Exhibition (useful for the links to articles covering the controversies)
Georgia Right To Life homepage.
Premier Exhibitions homepage (they brought us Titanic: the Artifacts, as well as the Bodies exhibition)
The Oak Leaves blog post on the new plan to sell slices of plasticized humans to private individuals.

Russ note...it's interesting that a quick search on the great evangelical leaders' websites reveals no commentary on this kind of thing whatsoever...I looked to Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, and Focus on the Family. Nothing.