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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For two years now, exhibitions of human cadavers have been traveling the country. The corpses in these shows have been preserved and solidified through a process called plastination. Often, their outer layers are peeled back to reveal their organs or joints or muscles. The exhibitions have been widely successful around the world selling millions of tickets earning tens of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone. Not surprisingly, they've often been dumped by criticism. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, one delicate ethical concern stands out above all others.

NEDA ULABY: At the Body Worlds II Exhibition, the corpses are ice dancing and skateboarding. They're doing yoga. Stripped of their skin, they're creatures of muscle, robustly red as they're suffused with oxygen. Ironically, each is a picture of health.

GUNTHER VON HAGENS: Body Worlds is not gory. It shows the beauty of the body.

ULABY: That's Dr. Gunther von Hagens at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last spring. He's the anatomist who invented plastination, a process by which the bodies are preserved by removing the fluid and replacing it with silicone or epoxy resin. And his signature black hat and leather vest, von Hagens is also Body Worlds' impresario.

VON HAGENS: I believe this is the real democratized age of anatomy. Anybody, any lay person has access to the beauty beneath the skin.

ULABY: Of course, they have to pay $25 to get in. But many visitors, like tourist, Angel Campos (ph) from New Mexico say it's worth every cent. Campos says Body Worlds is like wondering through an anamtomy textbook. But the plastinates do give him (inaudible).

ANGEL CAMPOS: I wonder who they were. I wonder how they got here.

ULABY: And that is the key ethical question. Whether the bodies were legitimately obtained. According to von Hagens, in the science museums that show his work, every whole body exhibited in North America comes from fully informed European and American donors who get permission in writing for their bodies to be displayed. Gunther von Hagens sat down with NPR in an airy museaum conference room to discuss where the bodies came from.

VON HAGENS: What I certainly never used for public exhibitions are unclaimed bodies, prisoners, bodies from mental institutions or even executed prisoners.

ULABY: Allegations and controversies have followed von Hagens around the world. He's something of a multinational corporation. Most of von Hagens' plasination is done in his main laboratory, which is moved from Germany to Kyrgyztan, and the Peoples Republic of China.

VON HAGENS: The Chinese are better in dissection skills. They have the patience, which we, in Europe, don't have. They're fine muscle dexterity is necessary to pulling those specimen of the high quality.

ULABY: Chinese medical schools supply von Hagens with unclaimed bodies, which he plastinates and sells to medical schools around the world. Von Hagens used to take cadavers from the Former Soviet Union. But he stopped after body trafficking scandals in Russia and the Kyrgyz Republic. Customs officials, from years ago, intercepted 56 bodies and hundreds of brain samples sent from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy to von Hagens' Heidelberg lab. The cadavers were traced to a Russian medical examiner, who, last year, was convicted of illegally selling the bodies of homeless people, prisoners and indigent hospital patients. Von Hagens was not charged with any wrongdoing. And he maintains categorically that his cadavers were obtained only through proper legal and ethical channels.

VON HAGENS: It's so nice to sensationalize this most successful traveling exhibition on earth since 10 years by bringing out from kind of (inaudible) stories.

ULABY: Still, NPR has learned that no clear paper trail leads from mourning donors to exhibited bodies. People donating their bodies to von Hagens sent consent forms to his Institute for Plastination. They paid to have their bodies transported to a plastination facility. There, their donor forms and death certificates are checked. That paperwork is then separated from the bodies, which could be used for displays or sold in pieces to medical schools. No one will know for sure because each plastinated corpse is made anonymous to protect its privacy. This is Hans-Martin Sass. He's a philosophy professor with the specialty in ethics. He was hired by the California Science Center to investigate Body Worlds before the show's US debut in 2004.

HANS: And just sent me to Heidelberg to compare the donation forms with the death certificates, in order to make sure that the people who signed the donation form, both whole body donation form, actually had died.

ULABY: Sass matched over 200 donor forms to death certificates. But he did not match the death certificates and donation forms to the specific bodies von Hagens has on display.

SASS: He has made a firewall between the real person and the plastinated body.

ULABY: I understand the point of the firewall for the general public. They're eager for a journalist like me. But it seems that an emphasis, to see all of it is, to make sure that the bodies being exhibited do belong to the people who say that they donated them. It might be important to verify.

SASS: Yes. And I should tell you very frankly, I had an exchange with Mr. von Hagens about it.

ULABY: But Sass came to agree with von Hagens' policy on anonymity, and approved the exhibition. Although, whether the bodies are from informed donors comes down to von Hagens' word. Sass' ethical report was central to the California Science Center's review, and has been used to support each exhibition of Body Worlds in North America. Science Center consultant, Sheila Grinell.

SHEILA GRINELL: It's hard. Science Center's don't have a way, really, of going back and taking every single detail of the prominence of all those bodies.

ULABY: Grinell says Body Worlds provided a windfall for science museums, which like other cultural institutions have faced attendance and funding struggles. Still, she does not believe they've cut ethical corners.

GRINELL: The museum leaders are following the controversy. Nobody wants to get a black eye. Everybody wants to increase their audience.

ULABY: And they have. Body Worlds three U.S. shows have drawn so far over 3 million visitors. Body Worlds, by the way, should not be confused with its competitor, Bodies: The Exhibition. Gunther von Hagens Body Worlds is now in St. Paul, Houston and Boston. Bodies: The Exhibition is in Tampa, Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York City. It's spokesman is retired professor, Roy Glover. He says its cadavers, all from China, did not come from willing donors.

ROY GLOVER: They're unclaimed. We don't hide from it. We address it right upfront.

ULABY: For that reason, many venues will not display Bodies: The Exhibition. Groups like the Laogai Research Foundation, which documents human rights abuse in China have charged the category of unclaimed bodies in China includes executed political prisoners. Harry Wu founded the group and he's testified before Congress on China's organ trade. Wu says rampant corruption in totalitarian China makes it impossible to compare with the U.S. And he says, he is not impressed by claims that the cadavers came to the exhibition legally.

HARRY WU: This is the law, Chinese law, right? Legal, right? Chinese do everything legal by their law, legal.

ULABY: It was perfectly legal to bring Chinese cadavers here as educational specimens, but the Chinese government has cracked down on the cadaver trade, banning export this month except for medical research. Arnie Geller is president of Premier Exhibitions, the company that brought the bodies from China.

ARNIE GELLER: I guess we'll be looking in other areas of the world for experts who can do this work.

ULABY: Geller and his spokesman, Roy Glover, say it's unfair to link Bodies: The Exhibition with dark assessments of International Cadaver Regulations.

GLOVER: People can raise those issues, but I think they've been addressed successfully and satisfactorily.

ULABY: But when Bodies: The Exhibition opened first in Tampa, Florida last summer, the state anatomical board requested documentation proving the corpses were ethically obtained. Dr. Lynn Romrell who chairs the board says it got only a letter from the show's Chinese plastinator asserting that they were.

LYNN ROMRELL: He stated that none of the material came from criminal institutions or comes from mentally insane. But just his word on that, no documents.

ULABY: Romrell wanted to close the exhibition down, but he says that the state anatomical board lacks the authority. He says, still, he's not against the exhibition in principle.

ROMRELL: If they had signed statements from donors that I release my body for public display and for a company to profit from the public display of my body, I couldn't argue against that but they don't that kind of documentation.

ULABY: The owner of Body Worlds, Gunther von Hagens, says each body each displays can be accounted for but he's unwilling to make public a complete paper trail. His competition, Bodies the Exhibition, relies on documentation from a country with a problematic human rights record where even at best its exhibitors say the bodies were not formally donated by people who agreed to be displayed. Yet despite questions about the two exhibitions both continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors around the country. And some museums are even thinking about adding plastinates to their permanent collection.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can hear Neda Ulaby's report on the popularity of the Body World exhibit and see images and video from it at npr.org.

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