Questions for Paul Wojda

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In May and June, 2006, Paul Wojda answered questions about body donation and bioethics in the Catholic tradition.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

When I first heard about the Body Worlds exhibit, I knew it was something I wanted to see. I wasn't offended or disturbed by it at all. But I found that there was something about the "half-done-ness" of the full plastinates that made me feel a little off-kilter. I think that aspect--the fact that they weren't whole bodies, but they weren't skeletons, and the pieces were there, but not necessarily fit together--is what makes the show so memorable. Why do you think we, as humans, find that so uncomfortable?

posted on Sat, 05/06/2006 - 1:12pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Good question. I suspect a lot of people leave the exhibit wondering about this. I don't know that there's one best answer, but I would propose that your/our reaction discloses just how much we take the the whole-ness or integrity of our bodies for granted. For example, the way in which von Hagens has "exploded" his plastinates reminds me of the "exploded" diagrams of machines (e.g., automobiles) in users manuals. Those diagrams--or the dissembled auto laid out for us on the floor of the garage--don't strike us as odd, even though they might fascinate, because we know that the whole is basically the sum of its parts. In other words, we know how it all goes together, and that it all goes together, piece by piece. On the other hand, no matter how mechanically the human body is displayed, something tells us it's not the sum of its parts. We aren't put together like machines. But the juxtaposition is jarring, no doubt.

posted on Tue, 05/09/2006 - 10:15am
Danielle's picture
Danielle says:

Would you ever donate your body to this same cause?

posted on Sun, 05/07/2006 - 11:40am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

No. I'll take the plain pine box (made by Trappist monks preferably), no embalming, six feet under, thank you! While it's not an option for me, I was impressed by the above-ground mausoleums I saw on a tour of a New Orleans' cemetery not too long ago. After about a year of baking in the sun the body is reduced to ash, which then falls to the floor, where it mingles with the ashes of the previous generation.

posted on Tue, 05/09/2006 - 10:24am
bryan kennedy's picture

Has the Catholic Church always been okay with some cases of body/organ donation or was it once more taboo?

posted on Sun, 05/07/2006 - 5:00pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Good question Bryan. When organ replacement techniques were perfected last century (e.g., especially with paired organs like the kidneys) there was some initial resistance to it, on the grounds that it seemed to require the "mutiliation" of an otherwise healthy donor's body. A distinction was then made, however, between "functional" and "physical" integrity that allowed theologians, and Church teaching, to focus on the charitable impulses that make organ donation such a vivid example of how one might love one's neighbor on the model of Jesus. By extension, the donation of one's body for the purpose of scientific and medical education also can be praiseworthy, provided that the body is treated with proper respect.

posted on Tue, 05/09/2006 - 10:53am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Do you think it would be ethical to receive an organ or tissue transplant, or to benefit from the knowledge gained from cadaver research, if you're not willing to donate yourself?

posted on Mon, 05/08/2006 - 11:18am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Great question Liza. I think there are two aspects to this question. The first has to do with your understanding of healthcare. If you consider healthcare a basic human right (as does the United Nations and the Catholic Church), then it would be problematic to make one's voluntary donation of organs/tissues a precondition of benefitting from healthcare. The second aspect has to do with what I think most people, religious or not, tend to see as the "heroic" element of organ donation. Donating one's organs/tissues really is going "above and beyond the call of duty," and is praiseworthy precisely for that reason. Catholics and other Christians call it an act of "charity." Can we mandate charitable acts? Can (or should) we make a duty out of what goes beyond duty? Most philosophers and theologians I know would say no. So, I would argue that while we ought to be grateful to those who have donated organs/tissues/bodies, we need not think it is our duty to do likewise in order, with good conscience, to receive an organ transplant or benefit from cadaver research.

posted on Wed, 05/10/2006 - 1:05pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Why are "opt-in" donation programs (i.e. you tell your family and health care providers that you want to donate) considered more ethical than "opt-out" programs (i.e. it's assumed that you want to donate unless you specifically tell someone that you don't)?

posted on Mon, 05/08/2006 - 11:19am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

I'm not sure there's any consensus, at least among philosophers/theologians, about which program is more ethical, but I suspect arguments for the "opt-in" programs would emphasize the individual "gift" character of the donation more than arguments for the "opt out" programs. In short, unlike the "opt-out" program, "opting in" requires an explicit act of choice (presumably thought-through) in order to work. It comes back to the issue about the character of organ/body donation as "above and beyond the call of duty" raised by Liza's question, above.

posted on Wed, 05/10/2006 - 1:16pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What do you think about stem cell research?

posted on Sat, 05/13/2006 - 10:04am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

I wholeheartedly support stem-cell research, especially using adult stem cells. I think there's enormous promise in this field. However, I am skeptical about embryonic stem-cell research, both because it doesn't seem (right now) as promising, but also because it involves the destruction of a developing human life. I like the slogan "Let's have research we can all live with."

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 3:48pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Do you think it would be okay for family members do donate a loved one's body to scince or organs for donation after death if the person never indicated that they wanted to do that? I mean, shouldn't it really be up to the ones who survive the potential donor?

posted on Sat, 05/13/2006 - 11:33pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Joe,

Good question. This is already common practice. Family members are routinely asked about possible organ donation in situations where a loved one (whether minor or adult) is irretrievably dying. At least some families report that a decision to donate helps in grieving their loss (especially in situations where death was accidental).

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 4:05pm
From the Museum Floor's picture

How does consent work if the person is a minor? If I am under 18 can I donate my body to science?

posted on Sat, 05/13/2006 - 11:37pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

With few exceptions, the medical decisions of minors, especially when incompetent, are in the hands of their parents/legal guardians. You could clearly indicate to your parents/guardians your desire to donate your organs, as well as putting your name on a registry and/or indicating your wishes on your driver's license. The important thing, though, whatever your age, is to communicate your desires with your family or those who will be in the position to make decisions in the event of your death.

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 4:14pm
sajawara's picture
sajawara says:

Why do people think that the Body Worlds exhibit is unethical?

posted on Mon, 05/15/2006 - 12:51pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

There may be many reasons. The two most common, I think, are these:

1) Doubts about the source of the bodies.

There are a number of exhibits similar to Bodyworlds presently touring the U.S. (and elsewhere). It's not clear that the bodies/organs on display in those exhibits are from individuals who gave their explicit consent for the use of their bodies/organs in these ways. There was some criticism about specimens in the Bodyworlds exhibit when it first began almost a decade ago. At least with respect to Bodyworlds, these concerns about consent have been settled.

2) Respect for the dead.

Some feel that the plastination and artistic display of the dead is disrespectful. The argument against such display can draw on both religious and philosophical principles. In the Catholic tradition, out of which I speak, there is no principled objection to the display of these bodies, provided they are handled respectfully. Here, I would argue, there may be legitimate differences of opinion about what "respect" means and requires.

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 4:24pm
From the Museum Floor's picture

I want to know what is your thinking about the legal and the ethical in the medical management of patients and the indications of drugs or use of implants (for example for joint replacements) or cadaver pieces from tissue banks. Thank you. Rafael\r\nPaiva.Caracas.Venezuel

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 11:30am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Rafael,

Thanks for the question! I'm not qualified to speak to the legal issues, so I'll confine myself to the ethical questions. From the perspective of the tissue donors the primary ethical questions have to do with informed consent. Why is informed consent so important? Here I think there can be an illuminating difference between the approach of mainstream bioethicists and those, such as myself, working out of religious traditions, especially (but not exclusively) Christian. Most mainstream bioethicists emphasize informed consent because of the way in which it safeguards individual autonomy, or freedom, which is one of the central values, if not the central value, in our culture. To use organs or tissues from the deceased against or apart from their will is to disrespect them as the autonomous individuals they were. (There's an interesting philosophical question here about whether it is possible to "respect" as a "person" a body that is no longer a person, but that's for another question, perhaps.)

From a Catholic Christian perspective individual autonomy is important, but not overriding. Informed consent is a way of safeguarding the "gift character" of the donation.

This raises the important social issue, hinted at in a few questions above I think, about how we should organize replacement organ procurement in our country. Given the demand for replacement organs and tissues, and given the "market economy" that drives so much of our other choices and behavior, we are always teetering on the brink of turning organ donation into yet another commodity exchange, and ultimately reducing the meaning of our bodies to commodities.

From where I sit, then, informed consent represents a powerful reminder that there are limits to what we can commodify, and there is a bright red line around the human body, whether living or dead.

posted on Tue, 05/23/2006 - 11:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Is the display of the mummy in the museum different than the display of the bodies in Body Worlds since the remains of the mummy are those of an unknown person, long dead and from another culture?

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 4:01pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Dear Anonymous,

Yes indeed the mummy is different on a number of levels, some of which you mention (unknown, long dead, another culture). If you're asking whether these features disqualify it for inclusion in the Bodyworlds exhibit I would have to say not necessarily. There are national laws (e.g., in Australia and the U.S.A.) mandating the repatriation for burial of the remains of aboriginal people, even those going on ten thousand years old. Such laws, however, do not apply to all "mummies" (e.g. ancient Egyptian), or the recently discovered remains of "ice-maidens," etc. However, I personally would object to the inclusion in this exhibit of the remains (whether whole or part) of Christian saints and/or martyrs. Even though these are often publicly displayed, their display in this exhibit would be inappropriate.

posted on Tue, 05/23/2006 - 11:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Paul, I Corinthians, Chapter 15, verse 44: "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body." Human existence beyond death cannot be separated from the physical form, since, upon resurrection, we may again take that form. Doesn't the preservation of the body in perpetuity somehow divorce us from our oneness with creation? Doesn't it separate body from soul, as if the two weren't an integrated whole?

posted on Mon, 05/22/2006 - 2:29pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Dear Anonymous,

Excellent question. In Catholic perspective the human person is considered a "body-soul" unity. We are neither "essentially" souls, only dragging our bodies around like so much luggage, nor are we "just" bodies, whose spiritual properties can be entirely explained by chemical reactions in the brain. The doctrine of bodily resurrection, to which St. Paul refers in these famous passages from his first letter to the Corinthian church, both assumes and articulates this "integrated" view of the person, indeed of all creation. In short, for orthodox Christianity, the body-our bodies-participate in the mystery of God's reclamation of the entire cosmos. And this, then, is the theological ground for the moral respect Christians are obliged to show to the human body, both our own and that of our neighbors, in life and in death.

Now, in the passage to which you refer, Paul is responding to a question about the manner in which the resurrection of the dead will occur, and the sort of bodies the resurrected will have. (His audience may well have had the "dry bones" image from Ezekiel 37:1-10 in mind.) While stressing continuity between our present physical (and corruptible) bodies, using the analogy of a seed husk, Paul actually accentuates the discontinuity: the bodies of the raised will be incorruptible (i.e., a "spiritual body").

There has been an enormous amount of speculation within the Christian tradition about the features of the "spiritual body," and perhaps Thomas Aquinas (13th century) best summarizes a great deal of the tradition in describing the "glorified body" as one in which the physical body will be perfectly subject to the soul (as it manifestly is not in the present).

Does the preservation of the body (through plastination) somehow assume or create a division of body and soul where the Christian tradition affirms there is none, or should not be? I'm not sure it does, or at least, I don't think it does so self-evidently. For one thing, the same sort of concern was once raised about cremation. For Catholics, at least, cremation is now permissible as long as its request does not explicitly embody a denial of bodily resurrection. For another, there exist cases of natural preservation (mummification), and I don't think such instances necessarily challenge our integrated wholeness. Finally, the terms of the donation of these bodies remains an important element in interpreting them, the central term being public education. Frankly, I think the attempts by some to "cryopreserve"--deep freeze--themselves (or parts of themselves) for resuscitation in the future are far more problematic on this count.

Finally--and sorry for the length of this reply--I do think the plastination process raises the spectre of individuals seeking to have "grandma" preserved and displayed as an alternative to burial. Justified by a misplaced appeal to our love for the deceased, it seems to me that such a practice does rest on a denial of our integrated wholeness, oddly enough, though, through the denial of our bodily corruptibility.

posted on Tue, 05/23/2006 - 3:08pm
From the Museum Floor's picture

When did the Catholic Church change its position on human dissections being illegal (such as Vesalius) to being acceptable? What caused the change in thinking?

posted on Mon, 05/22/2006 - 2:35pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Recent historical scholarship has actually debunked many longstanding myths about the relationship between the Church and the beginnings of modern medicine (in the Renaissance for the most part). For example, even in the late 19th century the story was still being told that Vesalius died while under pursuit from the Inquisition for having performed an autopsy on a live human being.

The Church did prohibit monks and other clerics (but not all priests) from practicing medicine and surgery, but only because the money to be made from these professions was liable to cause these individuals to leave their communities.

By the time of the emergence of the great Renaissance medical schools at Padua and Bologna in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Church had recognized the importance of autopsy/dissection for the advancement of medical knowledge.

posted on Fri, 05/26/2006 - 4:46pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

For some viewers, it's the depersonalization of the plastinated specimens that's upsetting, as it turns "people" into "objects." What do you think?

posted on Mon, 05/22/2006 - 2:47pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Dear Anonymous,

I would agree. It's interesting that very few of the "plastinates" have recognizable facial features, obviously because the skin has been removed. Despite their other differences, then, the bodies all tend to look the same, i.e., depersonalized.

Personally, I would favor the inclusion of some text or story about the individual donors to accompany each display. Perhaps names would be going too far. But what about age at death, hometown/region, occupation, and perhaps even some quotation from the consent form about their wishes and hopes?

Again, I think this would contribute to an appreciation for the "gift-character" of each individual's donation.

posted on Fri, 05/26/2006 - 4:52pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Do you consider the plastinated specimens people, cadavers, or objects? (Since very little of the original body remains after the plastination process...)

posted on Mon, 05/22/2006 - 2:47pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Dear Anonymous,

I'm not sure I would agree that "very little" remains, at least not with every plastinate. I consider these "plastinated specimens" to be the "preserved bodies" of deceased human beings.

They are not persons (if that is what you mean by "people"), because in Catholic theology at any rate, only living human beings are persons. In one respect you might say these bodies are the "physical echoes" of the persons they once were.

"Plastinated" or "preserved" cadavers could well be another term to describe them.

"Objects" would not be an accurate term, either descriptively or, i would argue, morally. These are the bodies of genetically unique individuals. To treat them as "objects"' would, I think, dishonor the gift they intended their bodies to be.

posted on Fri, 05/26/2006 - 5:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Does an artistic presentation of plastinated specimens necessarily constitute a violation of human (not singular, but plural) dignity? Yes, the donors consented, but what about the voyeurism of the viewers?

posted on Mon, 05/22/2006 - 2:48pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Dear Anonymous,

This is a great question and frankly one with which I have struggled. I don't think that the artistic display of the bodies "necessarily" constitutes a violation of human dignity, but I think the line between an awe-inspiring pose and a mere curiosity-arousing spectacle can be very thin at times.

The concern about voyeurism is a real one. A friend of mine who is a physician recently described to me the "talk" he and other first year med students were given just prior to their gross anatomy course (in which they would be dissecting human cadavers). In brief, they were reminded to approach and treat these bodies with dignity and respect. That obviously isn't the case with Bodyworlds, but I do think the way in which the exhibit is physically constructed discourages the voyeuristic.

As von Hagens has written, and as the various banners and artwork accompanying the exhibit make clear, Bodyworlds is meant to be seen within the context of the western anatomical tradition, and especially the renaissance and early modern portion of it, in which atlases and treatises frequently contained plates displaying various aspects of human anatomy in artful poses, or against naturalistic landscapes. In short, there was clearly an "aesthetic" aim as well as an educative one.

However, I think it's worth asking whether every body on display achieves the proper balance between these aims. A number of the displays are "signed" by the "artist/anatomist" von Hagens; one of them wears a straw hat (supposedly a 'touch of humor'). In such instances I think one could reasonably question von Hagen's intentions (self-promotion? shock?) if not motivation. In each case one can reasonably ask whether the originating generosity of the donor is being eclipsed, and even undercut, by mere sensationalism and/or curiosity ("look what I did!").

I think it's also reasonable to ask whether the exhibit might be too big. At what point does our marvel at the "beauty beneath the skin" (von Hagens) give way to a fading incredulity at von Hagen's own skill in posing plastinated bodies.

There is evidence (based on exit interviews) that whatever the reasons people were initiially attracted to the exhibit, they left with a better appreciation of/for the human body. My guess is that most of these interviews occurred too soon. It would be interesting to ask the same sorts of questions one, two, or even three weeks after viewing the exhibit.

posted on Fri, 05/26/2006 - 5:26pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

In the case of the pregnant woman who died and was plastinated along with her unborn children, one wonders if these children would have given consent to be plastinated and if these children were at an age of viability where they could have been delivered as premies and survived as people rather than objects of "art"? Does this situation cross the line for you personally or for the RCC?

posted on Fri, 05/26/2006 - 10:29am
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

Parents are generally the ones who consent for their minor children to be organ/tissue donors. There is no evidence that in this exhibit there was any possibility of rescuing the unborn child, who unfortunately perished with his/her mother.

These are always, of course, immensely tragic situations, involving the untimely death of a child, and I suspect this is what we come up against when we observe these particular displays: if anything, the plastination process freezes in time a deeply mournful moment, but as is always the case in the clinical presentation of such loss, it simultaneously seems to ask us to neglect and/or repress our basic human response to the tragedy. Clinical indifference/curiousity seems wildly inappropriate when confronting this reality.

I think for this reason, many people--and perhaps Catholic Christians in particular, though not them alone--may wish not to view this part of the exhibit.

posted on Fri, 06/02/2006 - 1:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Dear Mr. Wodja,

What do you mean by bioethics in Catholic tradition?

posted on Mon, 05/29/2006 - 3:53pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

"Bioethics" is a recently invented term, but in its broadest sense it refers to the systematic and disciplined inquiry into questions raised by medical practice and biomedical/behavioral research. (For some "bioethics" also includes questions related to environmental issues.) There is a long tradition--stretching back more than 500 years--of Catholic theologians examining such questions/issues, even though the term "bioethics" (or even "medical ethics") doesn't appear until the 20th century.

posted on Fri, 06/02/2006 - 1:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Are you receiving compensation as an advisor to the museum for this exhibit? Was it offered?

posted on Tue, 05/30/2006 - 1:40pm
Paul Wojda's picture
Paul Wojda says:

I have received no compensation for my work as an advisor to the museum, nor was any such compensation ever offered.

posted on Fri, 06/02/2006 - 12:59pm