May 21, 2008 -- Click here to read an update on this story.
Twenty-one members of Congress have sponsored a bill that would strike a major blow to the multi-million-dollar industry that puts human bodies on display because they say the bodies could be from executed Chinese prisoners.
Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri introduced the bill that would prohibit the importation of any "plastinated" human body part into this country. Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions uses "unclaimed" Chinese bodies infused with silicone through a process called "plastination" for display across the nation in an exhibit called, "Bodies…The Exhibition."
"This is a human rights issue about affording human dignities to people around the world," said Rep. Akin, adding that he is concerned that the Chinese people in the exhibit did not give permission for their bodies to be on display. "We cannot verify the source of each body coming from China, so we decided the best approach was to say that in our country, you cannot import plastinated bodies," he said.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, is one of 21 co-sponsors of the bill. "I am not confident that the people whose bodies are in this exhibit consented," he said. "China's record on human rights should give us pause in any issue involving human remains imported from that country."
Premier Exhibitions says that the "unclaimed" bodies on display were legally obtained from Dalian Medical University.
ABC News' "20/20" reported earlier this year that the bodies did not come from the university but instead from a private, for-profit lab about 30 miles away. "20/20" interviewed someone who said he was a former participant in the black market, in which, he said, bodies were sold to that lab for $200 to $300 each. Dalian Medical University told ABC News that it severed its ties to the plastination lab several years ago.
Premier's former CEO Arnie Geller, who is still on the company's Board of Directors disputed the allegations on "20/20." He said that his suppliers assured him that "these are all legitimate, unclaimed bodies that have gone through Dalian Medical University."
He also said he was appalled at the allegations that some of the bodies from his Chinese suppliers might be those of executed prisoners. "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.
Premier general counsel Brian Wainger said the company has another exhibit called "Bodies Revealed" that they say exhibits only donated bodies from China. He said the company still uses plastinated "unclaimed" bodies for exhibitions and is working with the same suppliers.
Human rights activists and protesters of the exhibit say that "unclaimed" in China could mean anything. "In the U.S. we have very specific laws as to what constitutes 'unclaimed.' Premier's use of 'unclaimed' is 'unknown,'" said Sarah Redpath, who runs a Web site protesting the exhibit out of her home in North Carolina.
Redpath also argues that there should be more government regulation over the importation of plastinated bodies. "We need our elected officials, not profiting entertainment companies, to regulate this industry," she said.
U.S. Customs has said that since the plastination process changes the nature of the human remains, plastinated body parts can be imported as plastic objects, not as human bodies.
Akin is outraged. "That is the same rhetoric that oppressive governments around the world have used to dehumanize people. This is a human body. Just because you infuse plastic into it does not change that," he said.
Akin's bill would not affect current shows because the remains are already here. It does not single out any particular bodies exhibit or company that performs plastination. Under the bill, only bodies donated and plastinated domestically would be legal to display. Penalty for importation of plastinated bodies would be a fine of up to $10,000 per violation.
Other companies that would be affected include Corcoran Laboratories, a Michigan-based company that imports plastinated body parts from China and advertises them on their Web site to the public. They also sell the plastinated parts to medical schools for teaching purposes.
Gunther von Hagens who invented the plastination process puts on another show featuring plastinated bodies called "Body Worlds." He, too, would be affected as his plastination factory is located on the German-Polish border. Von Hagens says all his bodies are donated and that he no longer works with corpses obtained from China.
The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. No hearings have yet been scheduled.
California and Pennsylvania state representatives have introduced bills requiring the exhibitions to provide documentation proving that each body on display comes from a person who legally consented. The Pennsylvania bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee while the California bill is on the State Senate floor.