August 7, 2008 -- Click here to read an update on this story.
In the shadow of the Beijing Olympics, U.S. state legislators are pushing forward new laws that would tighten business practices for importing cadavers from China.
Earlier this week Pennsylvania state lawmakers debated a bill that would require companies that exhibit the remains of human bodies to obtain consent forms from body donors. Such legislation could set the stage the for passage of bills in other states, and give a boost to federal legislation introduced earlier this year that would completely ban all importation of body parts into the United States. [Click here to read Blotter coverage of the legislation]
"This is a human rights issue we ought to be concerned with," said Democratic Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee chairman, who held a hearing on the state bill Tuesday.
Such action is necessary, Caltagirone said, because he doubts he can trust body verification coming from the Chinese government.
Penn. State Rep. Mike Fleck (R), who has introduced the bill, echoed that concern. "In America you can't sell your body. To use someone's body against their will in life or death is exploitation."
The bill came as a result of an ABC News 20/20 investigation into Premier Exhibitions, a publicly traded company that displays the remains of "unclaimed" Chinese people across the country and around the world for about $25 a ticket. The investigation found that the bodies on display could have been those of executed prisoners.
The bill still faces hurdles. Caltagirone said it will likely take until the start of 2009 to move the bill from the Pennsylvania House to the Senate.
Still, Fleck said in an interview that he thinks the bill is having a ripple effect. So far Calif. State representative Fiona Ma, (D-San Francisco) introduced a similar bill and, Fleck said, state representatives from as far as Hawaii have contacted him in support of the bill, saying that they are interested in introducing their own.
During testimony Tuesday, human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent more than 19 years in a Chinese prison for speaking out against the government, showed gruesome photos of prisoners executions in China, which shocked members of the committee. One group of photos Wu showed displayed the bodies of four people shot execution style. The corpses, he said, were being prepared for plastination -- a process to preserve human bodies -- that Wu said could have gone to Premier's supplier.
But company officials said that Pennsylvanians should have the right to make their own decisions about whether or not to go and see the exhibits.
Brian Wainger, Premier's general counsel, testified before the committee that while it was impossible to prove that none of the bodies were from executed prisoners, the company's supplier in China, Sui Hongjin, "absolutely categorically denied that he has ever seen those photos or that he has ever supplied to Premier any specimens with evidence of trauma or bodily injury."
Wainger dismissed the 20/20 report as "sensational" but added, "We cannot be 100 percent sure that a liver didn't come from the body of an executed prisoner. What we can do is rely on credible people who are associated with credible universities and institutions."
Walter Hoffman, Montgomery County coroner, who has worked with Premier to examine the plastinated bodies upon their arrival in the United States, defended the company at the hearing. "I can reiterate that none of the 50 or 60 bodies I examined had any evidence of injury, torture, or abuse," he said.
In an interview for 20/20 in February, former Premier Chairman Arnie Geller, who resigned following the report, told ABC News he was appalled at the allegations that some of the bodies from his Chinese suppliers might be those of executed prisoners.
He said his own medical staff had seen no such evidence and that his suppliers have assured him that "these are all legitimate, unclaimed bodies that have gone through Dalian Medical University."
In the wake of the 20/20 report, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched his own investigation and found that Premier could not prove that the bodies on display were not those of executed prisoners. Cuomo and Premier reached a settlement that requires the company post a disclaimer at its New York exhibit and on the exhibit's website stating the attorney general's finding. The settlement also requires that the company obtain documentation "demonstrating the cause of death and origins of the cadavers" as well as written consent from the donors. [Click here to read Blotter coverage of the settlement]
Premier says in its promotional material that it gets the bodies from Dalian Medical University plastination laboratories. Corporate records show that Premier loaned the bodies from Sui, a professor at the university.
When 20/20 called Dalian Medical University in February, the university's president said that the institution had never supplied any bodies to any American company, although the university did at one time supply bodies to Gunther von Hagens, the German doctor who invented plastination. Von Hagens says he no longer uses Chinese bodies for plastination because of the country's controversial human rights record.
ABC News traveled to Sui's plastination laboratory, about an hour's drive outside the city of Dalian, and found that bodies were being plastinated out of a private company's warehouse on a back alley in an industrial zone.
Wainger said at the hearing that Premier licensed between ten and 20 whole bodies and several hundred organs and body parts per exhibition. The company currently promotes 17 exhibitions. Wainger added that Premier likely will not need to procure more specimens since the plastinated bodies it already has will last forever.
Next week, Caltagirone and the other Judiciary Committee members will tour the Whitaker Museum in Harrisburg where one of Premier's shows is on view.
"We have to see the exhibit for ourselves before we come to a definitive conclusion," Caltagirone said.