Feb. 20, 2008 -- Click here to read an update on this story.
Lawmakers are calling for Congress to probe bodies shows in the wake of ABC News "20/20" report on the black market of bodies coming from China to be put on display across the United States.
"It has every mark of executions and abuse," said Congressman Christopher Smith, R-N.J., referring to Premier Exhibition's display of "unclaimed" bodies from China, cured in silicone and essentially turned into plastic through a process called "plastination."
"There is a due diligence that has to be done, particularly coming from a totalitarian dictatorship where execution of prisoners and a general lack of value for human life are paramount," said Smith, who has championed human rights issues in China for many years.
Smith said he will be issuing a formal request to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a congressional hearing. "There needs to be a moratorium immediately. There is something very very wrong here."
He said he is writing a letter to the U.S. attorney general urging him to open an investigation into how the bodies shown on display are obtained.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has already begun a probe, and Premier Exhibitions said it would cooperate fully in the investigation. In a statement from its general counsel, Brian Wainger, Premier said, "We look forward to having a thorough investigation that will allow the facts to reveal themselves in an unbiased way."
The company said it does not use the bodies of executed prisoners on display and that the use of unclaimed bodies for education and research is a common practice in both America and China.
Arnie Geller, the chairman of Premier Exhibitions, 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."
Smith said he is drafting legislation that would require an independent group of experts to verify the identity of each body on display.
Similar legislation requiring exhibition companies to account for the identity of each individual body on display passed in the California State Assembly earlier this month and will be heard on the Senate floor in March.
Assemblymember Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who introduced the legislation, said she has been inundated with e-mails and phone calls since the "20/20" story aired.
"People were outraged that this is happening. The response has been off the hook," said Ma, adding that her staff has been monitoring the enormous volume of bloggers who have posted on various Web sites about the issue since Friday.
While lawmakers are gearing up to regulate the bodies shows, museum centers have largely stood by Premier Exhibitions and its Bodies…the Exhibition show.
The Carnegie Science Center released a statement after the "20/20" program aired reaffirming its belief that Bodies...The Exhibition is "unquestionably a powerful educational experience," and that it is proud of its role in bringing it to Pittsburgh.
"We saw nothing in the '20/20' report that we consider new or credible information," the museum said, adding that the report was "sensationalized and designed to draw viewers in during the sweeps rating period."
A former employee of the Carnegie Science Center who resigned when the museum decided to showcase Bodies…the Exhibition said she has received overwhelming support over the past few days since the "20/20" report aired.
Elaine Catz, former education coordinator for science content at the Carnegie Science Center, said she tried to prevent the museum from exhibiting the show on moral grounds.
She resigned in June of 2007 and started an online "virtual picket" for citizens who questioned the ethics of putting unclaimed bodies from China on display.
Catz said the number of hits on her Web site, the "Anti-BODIES Protest Site," has skyrocketed since the report aired. She now has more than 200 virtual picketers of the Bodies…the Exhibition show.