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 V.17 No.12 | March 20 - 26, 2008 

News Feature

The Anatomy of Ethics

Medical students question exhibit's use of bodies without donor consent

Protesters hold up signs at the corner of Menaul and Louisiana objecting to the “Bodies Human” exhibit in the Coronado Mall. From left to right: first-year UNM medical student Gabriel Palley, former medical school librarian Sally Bergen, history graduate student Graham McNeill and first-year medical student Jennifer Hunt.
Tina Larkin
Protesters hold up signs at the corner of Menaul and Louisiana objecting to the “Bodies Human” exhibit in the Coronado Mall. From left to right: first-year UNM medical student Gabriel Palley, former medical school librarian Sally Bergen, history graduate student Graham McNeill and first-year medical student Jennifer Hunt.

UNM medical student Amanda Lo objects to the " Bodies Human" exhibit in Coronado Center. She's not grossed out by it. She harbors no religious qualms. But the people on display for shoppers to gape at in Albuquerque's mall did not give their consent to be filleted, propped up and posed.

The bodies, according to Loand exhibit owner Michael Churchmancame through Corcoran Labs, a Bay City, Mich., company. Churchman says he's "reasonably sure" the people in "Bodies Human" did not sign a consent form, nor did their families. "It's my understanding that most, if not all, were just unclaimed bodies," he says. Unclaimed bodies from Taiwan that were headed to cremation and then the dump. "If you had nobody to claim you, which would you rather do?" Churchman asks. "Would you just want to be ashes under someone's feet? Or would you want a medical school using you to dissect, to teach somebody how to make somebody else well?"

Lo says that's certainly not the way it works at UNM's medical school. Most of the bodies they use are from people who've donated themselves to science. A memorial service is held after the use of the bodies. Unclaimed bodies are another story, she says. "The bodies they're using are from people who never knew their bodies were going to be used this way. They never were told their bodies were going to be in a show making millions of dollars."

If you had nobody to claim you, which would you rather do? Would you just want to be ashes under someone's feet?

Exhibit owner Michael Churchman

Lo formed a group of students who condemn the exhibit. Other university groups joined in to decry the display as well, including the Peace Studies Program and the UNM chapter of Amnesty International. "I'd really like our state to ban these kinds of shows that don't have consent," Lo says. Lo's unnamed group contacted Coronado Center to demand the exhibit be removed, she says, but was rebuffed and told the contract with "Bodies Human" doesn't expire until May. Coronado Center did not respond to Alibi calls as of press time.

“Bodies Human” exhibit owner Michael Churchman.
Tina Larkin
“Bodies Human” exhibit owner Michael Churchman.

Churchman says Corcoran, the laboratory that performs the plastination procedure allowing the bodies to be preserved for years, ships the bodies from Taiwan. But Lo isn't so sure. Corcoran labs has been linked in other news reports to China, a country that has a poor record on human rights and a noted black-market organ trade, Lo says. Churchman says he doesn't know the name of the lab or labs in Taiwan that Corcoran gets its bodies from.

There are a few companies that display bodies that have undergone plastination, the most prominent being "Body Worlds" and "Bodies: The Exhibition." Questions of how these companies came to procure their bodies came up in a " 20/20" investigation on Feb. 20.

Churchman created Lynx Exhibits about a year ago and says it was an attempt to help El Paso revitalize its downtown. He wanted to get the Dead Sea Scrolls, but couldn't and so looked into procuring bodies instead. As an engineer, Churchman says he's always been fascinated by the human body. He ran the El Paso show for five and a half months, but not enough people attended. So he's taken his bodies exhibit to Albuquerque to generate more money. After it's finished touring, Churchman plans to donate the exhibit to a medical school.

If that guy had preserved puppies and kittens and bunny rabbits and skinned them and had them exhibited over there, I think there would have been a greater fury.

Tom Estenson

Churchman boasts his exhibit has the largest "lifestyle" section of them all. Smokers’ lungs next to regular lungs, enlarged hearts by normal hearts, kidneys with tumors and without. "When you look, it's pretty gross what you do to your body." The educational component of Churchman's exhibit is important to him, he adds.

Tom Estenson, director of Anatomical Facilities at UNM, says body and tissue donations in the U.S. are governed by the state. A person can donate themselves, and 95 percent of UNM's bodies were procured that way. A person with power of attorney--a spouse, child or grandparent--can also donate someone to science. That makes up the remaining 5 percent. No one could donate a body to science if that person said expressly that they didn't want to be. "I don't think we'd want to have someone come to us that didn't want to be here."

There are very strict rules not only for students viewing the bodies, but for surgeons who practice techniques on them as well. A surgeon is allowed to photograph a procedure but not the face of the body she's working on. "I would never exhibit our folks like they do in Coronado Mall," Estenson says. "These people didn't know this was going to happen to them. Everybody, indigent or unclaimed, deserves dignity." If the people in the exhibit had offered their permission and knew exactly how they would be used, Estenson says he'd have no problems with it.

Still, Estenson says, the mall just isn't the place for such a display. "To be put out to titillate and amuse the masses doesn't seem, to me, proper." Churchman, the exhibit’s owner, says the ideal place for a collection would have been the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, but it's booked a year or two in advance.

Culture and religion dictate feelings about death and dying, Estenson says, adding, "If that guy had preserved puppies and kittens and bunny rabbits and skinned them and had them exhibited over there, I think there would have been a greater fury."

 

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