August 21, 2008 -- In an unprecedented victory for human rights activists, California legislators have passed a new law that would ban the display of unclaimed bodies from China for profit in the state.
Majority Whip Fiona Ma of San Francisco who introduced the legislation said its passage shows that California does not accept the commercial exploitation of the deceased.
"This bill will end the practice of unwilled dead-body trafficking," said Ma after her bill recently passed in both the Assembly and the Senate by an overwhelming majority.
ABC News 20/20 interviewed Ma during a four-month investigation of 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.
Ma told ABC News she became suspicious about the exhibitions when she realized that all of the bodies on display were Chinese.
"As an Asian American, I know that few people from my community would voluntarily donate their organs or bodies due to the strong cultural preference of leaving their body intact for burial after death," said Ma. "I am hopeful that the bill will receive the Governor's signature and the practice of unwilled body trafficking will be put to a halt."
Ma's bill is on its way to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but a spokesperson for the Governor said he does not have a position on bills until they reach his desk.
The bill will prohibit the commercial display of human remains after the start of 2010 unless exhibitors file an affidavit to the Attorney General attesting that the donors consented to being put on display, and requires that the exhibitors maintain a paper trail for public inspection.
The state will fine any exhibitor $50,000 per violation if the company fails to maintain the consent forms, and will prohibit the company from continuing to display bodies for profit.
Up until 2010 the bill requires that exhibitors post clear and conspicuous disclosure statements to inform consumers whether or not the bodies on display came from consenting donors.
Premier is currently exhibiting nine "BODIES…the Exhibition" shows around the world, which the company says displays unclaimed bodies from China.
In Redding, Calif., Premier is exhibiting "Bodies Revealed," a show which the company says displays bodies and specimens from consenting Chinese donors.
Ma said she doubts that any Chinese person would voluntarily agree to have his or her remains put on public display.
"I find it hard to believe that 'Bodies Revealed' has the proper permission from the deceased or next of kin," said Ma.
Two weeks ago Pennsylvania state lawmakers debated a similar bill that would require companies that exhibit the remains of human bodies to obtain consent forms from body donors.
Penn. State Rep. Mike Fleck (R), who introduced the bill, echoed Ma's concerns. "In America you can't sell your body. To use someone's body against their will in life or death is exploitation."
Brian Wainger, Premier's general counsel, testified before the Pennsylvania House Judiciary 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, has "never 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."
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 to 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.
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.