Exclusive: Secret Trade in Chinese Bodies

Where did this body come from?

February 14, 2008, 12:34 PM

Feb. 14, 2008— -- Click here to read an update on this story.

The German doctor who invented the process that led to hundreds of human bodies being put on display around the world, says he has stopped using bodies from China because some of them may be those of executed Chinese prisoners.

The body shows, which have drawn millions of paying customers in more than 30 cities, show human bodies that have been preserved with a liquid plastic process. The bodies are shown skinned and trimmed, in a variety of poses, including throwing a football, playing poker or at a chess board.

In an interview to be aired Friday on the ABC News program "20/20," Dr. Gunther von Hagens also says an underground black market is providing bodies to Chinese companies that export them to the U.S. and Europe, despite a 2006 Chinese law prohibiting the export of human bodies for commercial purposes.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was investigating the allegations.

Von Hagens says he had to cremate several bodies he received in China after detecting injuries that led him to suspect they had been executed prisoners. He says those bodies were given to him by a medical school in China to plastinate for teaching models. He said he only used Chinese bodies, all of which he received from the Chinese university, for teaching models, but has never put Chinese bodies on public display.

"There is now no way for me any more to work with specimens in China," said von Hagens, who says his company in China now only deals with animal specimens.

The German doctor, labeled Dr. Death by some European newspapers, said, "I am concerned that public exhibitions are being hijacked by corporate interests."

Von Hagens says the bodies he uses in shows currently running in Baltimore, Milwaukee and elsewhere are from European donors who voluntarily consented prior to their deaths to have their bodies put on display.

Von Hagens provided "20/20" with documents of donors to back up his claim.

"The donors know exactly what is the scope of what we are doing," he said in the interview, conducted at his body factory in the German town of Guben, on the Polish border.

Von Hagens says he invented the "plastination" process initially, in 1975, to prepare body specimens for medical schools.

In 1995, he opened the first public display in Tokyo and has since made millions of dollars with shows around the world that have provoked considerable controversy.

"You're going to be entertained by looking at dead bodies, by looking at cadavers that have been put in the most atrocious poses for our entertainment," said Rabbi Louis Feldstein of Atlanta.

Feldstein says it violates a standard of "respect for the life that was lived."

Earlier this month, the California Assembly passed and sent to the Senate, legislation that would require body shows to have proof that each body had been donated with "informed consent."

"As a person of Chinese descent, I just don't believe any family would consent to have their kin shown this way," said the bill's author, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

"The skin is ripped off; body parts are exposed so that someone else could be making millions of dollars looking at them," she said.

Dr. von Hagens says he strongly supports the California legislation and says it should be the standard worldwide.

"Especially as a German, with [our country's] Nazi past, I have to refrain to avoid the tiniest, little strand of any doubt that I am guilty of unethical conduct," he said.

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