A Bioethicist Takes a Peek at 'Body Worlds'

A human skull, sliced and preserved, is part of the Body Works exhibit.

Transparent "body slices," according to the Body Worlds exhibit, have their natural color preserved. Other exhibits are far more graphic. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds hide caption

itoggle caption Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds

A controversial exhibit is traveling around the country. Body Worlds uses cadavers to teach graphic lessons about anatomy. Some question the propriety of it all. Commentator Ruth Guyer, a bioethicist, visited the exhibit.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This week NPR's Neda Ulaby reported on the controversial exhibits of real human bodies, partially dissected. The bodies are preserved through a process called plastination(ph) and then displayed and posed in a wide variety of positions. These exhibits have been touring the U.S. for two years and have attracted thousands of visitors coming to museums to view the displays. Commentator Ruth Levy Guyer, a bioethicist, recently visited one of the traveling exhibits called Body Worlds. She offers her thoughts.

RUTH LEVY GUYER reporting:

During the Renaissance an anatomist named Andreas Vesalius published a text with engravings of human skeletons and partial dissected bodies posed in the Padua countryside. One skeleton leans on a shovel, having just dug his own grave. Another fingers a skull, apparently contemplating mortality. Vesalius wanted to teach anatomy and stimulate philosophical reflection.

He often did the dissections publicly. In the 19th century public dissection went out of vogue but not before the philosopher Jeremy Bentham was dissected in front of an audience. Utilitarian to the end Bentham, said he hoped others might reap some small benefit in and by my decease. Four years ago public autopsy was resurrected in London after a 170 year hiatus. The dissector claimed he was acting in the tradition of Vesalius, but a news account of the autopsy side show thought otherwise.

It is hard to know which kind of theater Professor Gunther von Hagens would feel more at home in, the reviewer wrote, an operating theater or the West End variety. Von Hagens is also the brains behind Body Worlds. When I first heard about the exhibit years ago I looked at its Web site and discovered its purpose was edutainment. The edu part made sense to me, a continuation of the attempts of Vesalius, Bentham and other to democratize understanding of human anatomy. But entertainment?

Do we really need to entertain ourselves with dead bodies? When I recently visited Body Worlds, I found it more disquieting than I had ever imagined. Bodies were in perverse, unnatural mocking poses. An athlete, arms outstretched, held a ball in one and his internal organs in the other. A child astride a man's shoulders gave a thumbs up sign. Von Hagens had signed his name to each cadaver as an artist would a painting.

The museum seemed complicit in the disrespect. The din from neighboring rooms was oppressive. Guards patrolling Body Worlds kept yelling about cell phones and cameras. Visitors were yucking it up with off color comments about the cadavers. Even the recumbent partially dissected young woman with her partially dissected fetus in situ did not seem to upset most of the viewers.

Whatever happened to our respect for the dead? True, Vesalius had included and irony in his representations, but he dealt in etchings, not cadavers. Most individuals instinctively grow silent in the presence of death. Most cultures and religions have rituals for burial and reburial. Think how often bodies are exhumed and given proper burials when the dead were victims of brutality.

Think about our national choice to have 24 hour guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Honoring the dead is a natural animal instinct. If an elephant dies in an open place, wrote Lewis Thomas in his essay, Death in the Open, the herd will not leave him there. The others will pick him up and carry the body from place to place, finally putting it down in some inexplicably suitable location. What does it say about us humans that we have forgotten our moral obligations to the dead, even as the elephants remember?

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ELLIOTT: Ruth Levy Guyer teaches bioethics at Haverford College. You can hear Neda Ulaby's reports on the controversial exhibits at our Web site, npr.org.

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