Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Do Not Read If You Are Squeamish

WARNING! Do not read if you are squeamish or easily offended!

There is a controversial new science museum exhibit in town featuring preserved human corpses in various states of dissection. This museum was involved in another controversy when it promoted the morally repugnant Amendment 2 to the Missouri Constitution allowing clone and kill medical research.

I haven't been to the exhibit, nor do I plan to see it. Promoters suggest that persons ought to see it before condemning it, but the same bad advice can be given to those who oppose dog fighting or gladiatorial games.

Instead, I offer these controversies found on Wikipedia. Perhaps the article is not authoritative, but it indicates some problems:
The shows have been surrounded by controversy for a number of reasons. Von Hagens prepared some "artistic" exhibits, such as a man carrying his own skin (based on a 16th century drawing by Gaspar Becerra); a man on horseback holding his brain in one hand, the horse's brain in the other; and a man kneeling in prayer, holding his heart in his hands. These exhibits are seen by some as denigrating the deceased. Some religious groups object to any public exhibition of human corpses. Others accuse von Hagens of sensationalism.

Von Hagens has been repeatedly accused of using bodies from deceased persons who did not give consent, such as prison inmates and hospital patients from Kyrgyzstan and executed prisoners from China (this latter led to a lawsuit against Der Spiegel, which von Hagens won). He maintains that all bodies exhibited in Body Worlds came from donors who gave informed consent. A commission set up by the California Science Center in Los Angeles in 2004 confirmed Von Hagens' claims. However, Von Hagens does not make the same claim for all bodies prepared by his plastination institute, only the ones exhibited in Body Worlds. There is also the issue that the children and unborn fetuses included in the exhibition had no way of giving informed consent to the display of their bodies; in the case of children informed consent would have to have been obtained from their parents.

The exhibit has also been accused of perpetuating gender stereotypes. The male plastinates are presented in active, "manly" and heroic roles (such as ‘the horseman’, ‘muscleman’, ‘the swordsman’, ‘the runner’ and ‘the chess player’) while some of the female plastinates are shown in the context of motherhood, beauty and passivity (such as 'the ballerina' who is actually wearing pink ballerina slippers; 'pregnant woman' a plastinate whose womb is exposed to show her unborn child and 'angel' whose feet are posed as if she were wearing high heels, complete with bits of her feet shaped into stilettos). There are, however, women portrayed as athletes, namely the swimmer, the figure skater and the archer.

There have been concerns regarding regulations for bodies exhibits in general. Reporting from Dalian, China for the NYTimes, David Barboza described "a ghastly new underground mini-industry" with "little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs." There have also been legal process problems with these displays. State Anatomical boards normally oversee the handling of bodies for medical purposes and have objected to the lack of oversight for bodies for public display. Dr. Todd Olson, director of the Anatomical Committee of the New York Associated Medical Schools (NYAMS), suggests that without state or federal laws “you have no documentation of who this is”. In addition, there are claims that the exhibit of bodies for commercial profit has reduced the donations of bodies for medical learning. The Director of North Carolina State Board of Funeral Services, Paul Harris, stated "Somebody at some level of government ought to be able to look at a death certificate, a statement from an embalmer, donation documents," Harris said. "That's a reasonable standard to apply."

International Trade experts object to the way bodies-for-commercial-display are imported because the way their categorization codes, as "art collections" don't require CDC stamps and death certificates that are required for medical cadavers.

In an ethical analysis, Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, compares cadaver displays to pornography in that they reduce the subject to “the manipulation of body parts stripped of any larger human significance.”

Lucia Tanassi, Professor of Medical Ethics and Anthropology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, explores in a 2006 lecture "Plasti-Nation: How America was Won", questions for ethicists regarding this new scientific frontier reshaping the social anatomy of the body and the biopolitical ground that it occupies. She calls it provocative how ethics committees have contributed to the popularization of the exhibits without setting forth any process of a line of inquiry, pointing to an ethics report from the California Science Center. As part of that review, bioethicist Hans Martin Sass, was sent to Heidelberg to match donor consents with death certificates. However, there was no actual body count, matching body inventory with paperwork. She states that the Institute for Plastination does not have even a basic level of documentation that is routine for anatomical labs, such as tagging.

There have also been concerns regarding the educational aspect of these exhibits, especially regarding the inclusion of these displays for school field trips. In North Carolina the Superintendent of Public Instruction stated that she 'would not recommend this material for school field trips'. St. Louis Diocese Archbishop Raymond Burke strongly suggests that Catholic Schools avoid scheduling field trips, as cadaver exhibits raise serious questions for Catholics. Concerned with how 'some kids process' these 'graphic' images, Des McKay, School Superintendent in Abbotsford British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, barred field trips to exhibits of plasticized human beings. In an editorial to the Abbotsford News, Rev. Christoph Reiners questions what affect the exhibits will have on the values of children attending for school field trips.

Von Hagens maintains strict copyright control over pictures of his exhibits. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures, and press photographers are required to sign agreements permitting only a single publication in a strictly defined context, followed by a return of the copyright to von Hagens. Because of this, a German press organization has suggested that the press refrain from reporting about the exhibition altogether.

In 2003, officials of Munich tried to prohibit the exhibition there, arguing that it violated laws regulating burials and did not respect human dignity. Von Hagens appealed and managed to obtain a temporary injunction allowing the exhibition to take place, but was required to cover the artistic exhibits mentioned above.

The exhibition in Hamburg in 2003 took place in the rooms of an erotic art museum on the Reeperbahn, the city's red light district. Prostitutes and cab drivers were admitted for free. Von Hagens added a new exhibit, "Early Bird", a man with an erection. Initial objections of a local official to the artistic exhibits were overruled by officials of the Hamburg Senate.

Annoyed with the repeated legal harassment which he encountered in Germany, Von Hagens announced in the summer of 2004 that the exhibition would leave Germany for good. The exhibit has been travelling in the United States and Canada since then.

Various religious groups, including the Catholic Church and some Jewish Rabbis have objected to the display, stating that it cheapens human life, is inconsistent with reverence towards the human body, and is more artistic and exploitative than educational.
I recall when this was first exhibited some years ago in Germany: it was not promoted for scientific or educational reasons, but rather explicitly for sensationalism. It is amazing how something can be legitimated merely by changing the words associated with it.

In moral theology, a virtuous person would not take scandal from this kind of exhibit, and would view such cadavers with dispassion; indeed, viewing it with the same kind of educational interest that is being promoted by the museum and media. A virtuous person may want to avoid viewing it for other reasons though, as seen in the above controversies — do we want to encourage the morally questionable methods of the promoter? Squeamishness, however, is a fact, even though it is a vice in adults, and it is extremely likely that children viewing this exhibit would be traumatized by it, perhaps severely. The media acknowledges (but usually dismisses) this objection.

We must also consider the vice opposite to squeamishness, which could be called morbid curiosity, a kind of decadence, which no one talks about. Viewing this exhibit could be an occasion of sin for some people, those who have an attraction to death and decay. Occasions of sin encourage, or at least makes psychologically more acceptable, actual sins, so it would be prudent to avoid this kind of morbidity by prohibiting this exhibit. The fact that the exhibit is skewed more towards humor and sensation versus pure intellect ought to be worrisome for this reason. In history, public executions, human sacrifice, and torture were seen as decadent spectacles, and those societies grew ever more violent and self-destructive.

Decadent morbidity has been on the rise in recent decades, especially in the creative media, and should be worrisome. That is, we should be worried about pleasure regarding death, for pleasure motivates action in that direction. The virtuous alternative is not prudishness or denial of death, but rather the Catholic memento mori which reminds us of the "Four Last Things" of death, judgment, hell, and heaven.

Sadly, the Liberal media in Saint Louis seem to unreservedly recommend this exhibit.

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