Bodies in plastic, morally problematic?

An exhibit called “Body Worlds” is currently touring the United States and generating some animated discussion in its wake. It puts the human body on public display in various poses after the body has been filled with a kind of plastic preservative. The bodies are posed, for example, as a rider on a horse, where the body of the horse is also plasticized.

By removing skin and various layers of musculature to expose internal organs, it is possible to literally look inside the body and see its inner structure. In one exhibit, an expectant mother has been cross-sectioned to reveal her unborn child, while in another, a man has been peeled down to his musculature, and he carries his skin on his arm like an old raincoat. The exhibit is billed as an educational exhibit, teaching people about the internal structure and organization of their own bodies. As the director of the exhibit phrased it, “My aim is to illuminate and educate through the beautiful arrangement” of bodies. Yet some people find the exhibit “edgy,” causing more than a tinge of discomfort, and they wonder whether there aren’t ethical concerns associated with putting the human body on display in this way.

One potential problem associated with such a display involves consent. In general, consent is very important, and should be sought for organ or bodily donation. Informed consent seems to be a recurrent theme in regards to this exhibition, since some of the bodies which have been on display in the past may not have had convincing documentation of informed consent. Several of the bodies may have originated from natural disasters in which the victims could not be identified. Hence, one can inquire whether all of the subjects really approved of their new “show business careers,” or as one commentator, half tongue-in-cheek, mused about the matter: “Dear World: Please don’t let them pump plastic into me and exhibit me naked, without half my skin, playing tennis. I hate tennis.” Other issues regarding consent are worthy of consideration as well. Obtaining valid informed consent may not really be possible when children or infants in utero are put on display, even though it is true that medical schools and museums have a rather long history of preserving human fetuses and embryos in formaldehyde for teaching and educational purposes.

Obtaining consent from adults, on the other hand, is not necessarily a difficult proposition. The organizer of the Body Worlds exhibit claims that more than 6,000 people have already signed the dotted line for their own future “plastination.” Many individuals are happy to donate their bodies to science. I recall doing dissections as an undergraduate student in an anatomy and physiology class, using a cadaver from an elderly lady who had donated her body to science. Such donations are not morally problematic, and in fact are similar to organ donation. Such organ donation is not only permissible, but can be seen as a very generous act. As Pope John Paul II once put it: “A particularly praiseworthy example... is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.”

But what about the display of bodies where consent cannot be obtained? When dealing with situations like museums displaying ancient Egyptian mummies, or tourists observing the remains of believers in the catacombs under Rome, or archaeologists examining skeletal remains exhumed from digs, such consent can probably be presumed, assuming that certain conditions are met:

1. Their remains are not being used in a disrespectful manner;

2. There is an educational, spiritual or inspirational end being realized by the use of the remains;

3. There was no indication left by the individuals or their relatives explicitly stating that they did not want the remains to be used in this public service;

4. The death of the individual was not intentionally caused in order to procure the body or the tissues.

Whether the use of human bodies in Body Worlds will be acceptable will largely depend on intense discussion surrounding the first and second conditions. Are the bodies being posed provocatively or being made to engage in immoral activities while on display, or are they set up in respectable, fundamentally decent poses? Since it is a public display, are the actions represented appropriate for public viewing, including children? These are some of the further questions we may need to consider when trying to decide about the moral acceptability of such an exhibition. There may also need to be assurance that the bodies on display, or parts from those bodies that were removed during their preparation, will ultimately be properly disposed of either through burial or through cremation, as a sign of our respect for the remains of the dead.

The fact that the traveling cadaver exhibit has already drawn more than 18 million visitors worldwide indicates a deep-seated fascination with understanding our own bodies. One might even argue that such an exhibit could prompt some soul searching and further discussion of human frailty and the meaning of our own mortality. Along the same lines, an exhibit which reveals the human child in utero by a simple cutaway can serve to powerfully remind visitors about the reality of the pro-life message, namely that children in the womb are not “blobs of protoplasm” but are rather our brothers and sisters at an earlier developmental stage. In the words of one astute observer: “If young women had windows on their stomachs, so they could see into their own wombs, the number of abortions would decline drastically.” The Body Worlds exhibit does seem to afford a unique opportunity to open a window onto the inner workings of the human body in a way that straddles the line between enlightening and edgy.

[ Editor’s note: The Body Worlds exhibit is on display at Boston’s Museum of Science now through Jan. 7, 2007]

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, and serves as the director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.