Letter to the editor

Today's Pioneer Press contains a letter to the editor from Ms. Sheila Steiner, of River Falls, Wisconsin. She writes:

"Would an anatomist in the U.S. have been allowed to skin a human body and fill it with plastic, pose it, and put it on display for a viewer fee simply because prior permission had been granted by the now deceased?

I cannot help but wonder how those who knew the living person think and feel about having their former loved one plasticized and on display.

It is reminiscent of an exhibit in Mexico where corpses were taken from graves and displayed to show how they had been preserved through minerals in the Earth.

It deeply troubles and saddens me to know that we have lost respect for the living as well as the dead. And we explain our unethical behavior as "an incredible learning opportunity".

Please skip the Body Worlds exhibit. Use your 20 dollars to feed the hungry or to buy a good anatomy book for a school."

Steiner's is a perfectly legitimate opinion, but what do you think? Whether you're here in the museum, and you've actually seen the exhibit, or you're visiting via the Internet, we want to know what you're thinking and feeling about the Body Worlds exhibit.

Did you find it gross? Beautiful? Disturbing? Fascinating? Moving? A little of each? Tell us about it.

Want to discuss the ethics of it? During the run of the exhibit, we're featuring four experts from our Advisory Committee (a Catholic theologian, a Hmong physician, a medical ethicist, and a body donation program director) to help answer questions and provide perspectives. Paul Wojda, a theology professor at St. Thomas University, is the first in this series. Ask him your questions!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Roxy's picture
Roxy says:

I thought that it was a wonderful and entertaining show that made me look at the human body in ways that i had never looked at it before. I thought it was really cool and that they should keep it going. I really like the runner because i thought it was really cool to see how all the muscles moved and worked. Thanks it was really cool!!!

posted on Fri, 05/12/2006 - 11:59am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Lest you think I'm asking for your opinions and thoughts without revealing any of my own, I'll say that I wasn't disturbed or offended by the exhibit at all. But there was something about the way the plastinates are displayed--how they're not skeletons, but they're not whole bodies, and you can see how the pieces nest together, but they AREN'T nested together--that make me feel a little off-kilter. It was also the aspect of the show that I found most engaging. (Aside from the "How did they DO that?!? puzzling that everyone does...)

I asked Paul Wojda, this month's "expert on the spot," why we feel that way when confronted with the exhibit. Want to read his answer?

I've been thinking about Steiner's specific concerns, and I want to respond to them:

  • I don't know if a US anatomist would have been allowed to create this exhibit, but we do plenty of research and education with cadavers in this country; isn't this just a logical extension of that? So that laypeople can see and understand what only medical professionals usually experience?
  • All of the bodies donated to the Body Worlds exhibit have been "de-personalized." They're not recognizable as the people they were in life.
  • This show is NOT like any show where graves have been desecrated. All of the donors CHOSE to have their bodies preserved in this way, and they also checked a box saying that public exhibition was acceptable to them. Some of them even said that the public could TOUCH (although this is not allowed in the exhibit). But it's an interesting point, nonetheless. How do you think the Body Worlds exhibit compares to, say, the public display of our mummy? How about the pathology bench or the body slices in the Human Body Gallery?
  • I personally think that the Body Worlds exhibit IS an "incredible learning opportunity." I also think that reasonable people can and will have different opinions about whether or not the display of the plastinates is "respectful." This is an issue that Paul Wojda addresses in his "expert on the spot" piece.
  • There are plenty of good uses that $20 can be put to. But an anatomy textbook is never going to be able to replace the up-close, hands-on look at individual human bodies that medical students get in anatomy lab, and that Body Worlds gives laypeople a taste of. That's why donation programs are so important. (Check back next week for a new feature!)
  • posted on Fri, 05/12/2006 - 1:01pm
    Thor's picture
    Thor says:

    I have the opportunity three days a week to be a gallery supervisor in the Body Worlds exhibit. The people visiting overwhelmingly speak positively about their experiences, some even mentioning it as being a very spiritual as well as scientific experience. Personally, I can't imagine any better way to have impact on people after death than sharing the mysteries of what makes us tick by donating a body to science.

    posted on Fri, 05/12/2006 - 2:04pm
    Anonymous's picture
    Anonymous says:

    i think it is grose even if you got permishion it is just not right for that to happen to some one even if they are died its just not right for someone to do that so ya it is just not right

    posted on Mon, 05/15/2006 - 11:56am
    knight1's picture
    knight1 says:

    As someone who repeatedly sees this wonderful exhibit, everytime i go thru i see some other thought provoking thing. I am very anxious to show my 7 year old grandaughter the wonders of things never before seen to us. How else will science progress unless we open new and wonderful horizons. Thank you to the science world and the people who saw the benifit of donating their shell to this amazing process.

    posted on Mon, 05/15/2006 - 5:07pm
    J Smoove's picture
    J Smoove says:

    I think that it's the person's choice. If they want to be plasticized, then so be it. Plastination 4TW!!1!1!

    posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 10:29am
    Liza's picture
    Liza says:

    Today (Friday, May 19), the Pioneer Press published a follow-up letter to the editor. This one, written by Forrest Seaberg-Wood of St. Paul, reads:

    "In response to Sheila Steiner's May 12 letter 'Respect sought for living, dead': Do you think we should leave the mummies alone? What about all those ancient skeletons?

    Those people wanted to be plasticized. Those were their bodies, and they got to choose what was done with them, just like they did with their property. This is not a lack of respect for the living, or the dead. It would have been disrespectful not to follow their wishes.

    And, I believe that yes, an American anatomist would have been allowed to do this--we let the anthropologists at the University of Tennessee use cadavers to study decomposition in humans. Cadavers are also used for teaching and practicing surgery techniques, and as crash test 'dummies.'

    It would do some good to remember that the ethics of using the dead for science has progressed beyond the days of Burke and Hare, who murdered people and sold them to anatomists."

    What do you think? Are some "research" or "educational" uses for cadavers more noble or more respectful than others?

    posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 10:50pm
    Liza's picture
    Liza says:

    And today, Saturday, May 20, the Pioneer Press ran another letter. This one, from Melissa Wolter of Maplewood, reads:

    "I don't find the Body Worlds exhibit offensive or disrespectful ('Respect sought for living, dead,' May 12). Yes, an anatomist in America would have been allowed to do this if the donor and family of the donor agreed to it.

    In America, your body can be donated to test bulletproof shields, transplant organs, allow surgeons to practice plastic surgery, and even left to the Body Farm in Tennessee where your body is left in a field to rot so they can record decomposition rates.

    Organ donation saves lives. Body donation to science saves lives also. Would you want to be the first person a surgeon operated on if he or she had had no cadaver practice?

    Disrespectful would be letting your body rot in the ground with no benefits going to humankind. After organ harvest, my body is going to the Body Farm."

    posted on Sat, 05/20/2006 - 1:38pm
    Anonymous's picture
    Anonymous says:

    my friend's friend just passed away from a non-cancerous tumor that they cut open but it turned out to be cancerous... they poisoned his body!!! and friend said that they were gonna donate his body to science... but my other friend is curious about what happens to the body after the doctors are done with them.

    posted on Sat, 06/09/2007 - 12:13pm

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