April 23, 2009 -- Click here to read an update on this story.
A French judge ruled Tuesday to shut down a Paris exhibition of real human bodies from China, saying that exhibiting dead bodies for profit is a "violation of the respect owed to them."
"Under the law, the proper place for corpses is in the cemetery," said Judge Louis-Marie Raingeard.
Raingeard ordered the exhibition, "Our Body: the Universe Within," to close within 24 hours or face a fine of 20,000 euros (over 26,000 dollars) for each day it stays open. The judge also ordered authorities to seize the 17 bodies on display and all of the organs on display from an unknown amount of people for proper burial.
The show displays the bodies in various poses that have been turned into plastic through a process called "plastination," in which a corpse is completely dehydrated and the flesh and bones are infused with plastic. Several companies put on similar shows across the United States and around the world.
The Paris show exhibits a plastinated man on a bicycle, whose remains are designed to teach patrons about the respiratory system, according to the show's organizer. There is also a chess-player, and an archer on display. Tickets go for 15.5 euros or about 20 dollars. Thousands of patrons have seen the show since it opened in Paris in February after tours in Lyon and Marseille.
Human rights groups are hailing Judge Raingeard's decision.
"I am extremely happy with the decision," said Richard Sedillot, a lawyer for two Paris-based human rights groups who filed a complaint against the show's organizer.
Sedillot said that given the well-documented human rights abuses in China, he fears some of the cadavers on display come from executed prisoners.
"I am convinced that the exhibition is the last step in a horrible traffic operation of human bodies originating in China."
Sedillot said the organizer could not prove that the bodies on display were donated with consent and that the exhibition itself violates French law.
"Parliament has understood that when you can make money with human bodies, there will always be someone who will be there to profit off of them—maybe to kill someone, maybe sentence someone to death, or maybe to deny medical care in order to be able to sell the body. We know today in China bodies are subject to a trafficking and that is why we must prevent these exhibitions from going on," said Sedillot. He added that he hopes to represent plaintiffs outside of France who seek to shut down shows in other countries.
Congress Members Applaud Order to Close Bodies Exhibit
Pascal Bernardin, the manager of Encore Events, the company that puts on the show in France, said the ruling was "absurd" and that he is appealing the decision.
"Thousands of people have written to me saying how much they loved and learned from this. It's done with class and is artistic and respectful," he said.
Having officially received the ordinance Wednesday, he said he planned to close the doors to the exhibit Thursday until he goes to the appellate court.
Bernardin said he believes that all the bodies put on display, which he said he obtained from a medical and anatomical foundation in Hong Kong, were donated by either the Chinese individual or his or her close relative.
"I don't know exactly where the bodies came from -- all I know is that I have all the guaranties from the foundation that they have double checked [that each organ or body was donated] and that they have been respectful," said Bernardin.
Bernardin said he has a committee of surgeons and anatomists who declared that there was no trace that any of the bodies had undergone physical trauma or that they came from executed persons.
"Everyone gets excited because there is the death penalty in China but you have the death penalty in the US. I don't think that because you have death penalty in China the medical world is trying to take advantage of that," he said, adding that of the 1.3 billion people in China, there must be people willing to donate their bodies to science.
Members of Congress who sponsored legislation to ban the importation of human bodies from China applauded the decision in France.
"These pay-to-view spectacles of human corpses violate the dead and desensitize the living, diminishing our respect for the human person. In recent years many countries have banned trafficking in persons and organ trafficking—I hope that the action of the French judge is a first step toward banning the trafficking in corpses for public display," said Rep. Chris Hill (R-NY), ranking member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China which monitors human rights in China.
A spokesman for Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), who introduced the bill to ban Chinese bodies from coming into the US, said the Congressman agreed with the judge's decision and maintains that such exhibitions, especially without the individuals' consent, is a violation of basic human rights and remains concerned that the documentation coming out of China that individuals did donate their bodies is not valid.
Akin introduced the bill following an ABC News 20/20 report last year on an American company, Premier Exhibitions, that puts on the "BODIES…the Exhibition" show displaying plastinated Chinese bodies across the country, in Europe and in Asia.
The 20/20 report disputed the company's account that all of the bodies came from a medical school in Dalian, China.
School officials told 20/20 it was "not true" that the school provides bodies for display in the United States. Instead, the report found the bodies were provided by a private company run by a professor from the medical university which initially supplied the bodies but had pulled out because of bad publicity.
The 20/20 report discovered a thriving black market in Chinese bodies, and a self-admitted dealer in the bodies black market described "body runs" to a location where bodies, including those of executed prisoners, were sold for $200 to $300.
Following ABC News' report, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation.
Premier settled with Cuomo's office last May, and the terms of the settlement required the company to prove that any new bodies on display were from consenting individuals.
Premier was forced to post a sign at its New York exhibit and state clearly on its website that it cannot disprove the allegations that bodies on display come from executed prisoners. The company is also required to refund tickets of customers who would not have seen the show if they had known what was going on behind the scenes. Cuomo also requires that the company be monitored by an independent entity for two years to ensure that the new business practices are enacted.
The company said it "must rely on the affirmations of its Chinese supplier" that the specimens do not come from the remains of executed prisoners.
The company's CEO Arnie Geller told ABC News 20/20 in February that 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."
"If these can actually be attributed to even the people that we're doing business with, we would have to do something about that immediately," Geller said.