Experts Urge Government to Investigate Controversial Dead Bodies Exhibition

Mimi Nguyen Ly

Experts and professional bodies in Australia are urging the New South Wales government to investigate a controversial exhibition in Sydney featuring flayed, plastinated human corpses sourced from China. They say the human corpses and body parts on display could be the remains of executed prisoners, including prisoners of conscience.

The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR), the NSW Bar Association, alongside other medical professionals, academics, and civil organisations, sent an open letter (pdf) to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian calling for an immediate investigation into the 'Real Bodies' exhibition, currently running at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney until Sep. 16.

The ‘Real Bodies’ exhibition, which displays 20 real human corpses that have been plastinated alongside 200 plastinated body parts, has continued to attract public outcry over ongoing ethical concerns that the remains may be those of unwilling Chinese citizens. Plastination is the process of skinning human bodies and injecting liquid silicone into the flesh in order to preserve it.

“We now call on you as the NSW Premier for an immediate and full investigation into whether holding the exhibition complies with Australia’s laws, directives, and ethical standards,” the letter said. Among those who signed were Madeleine Bridgett, an international human rights barrister, professor of bioethics and medicine Ian Kerridge from the University of Sydney, and clinical ethics professor Wendy Rogers from Macquarie University.

The letter cited "grave and ethical human rights concerns" as to how and where the bodies and organs in the exhibition were sourced. It pointed out that Tom Zaller, the President and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions—the company behind the exhibit—has already publicly admitted that he had  no consent documents and identification papers to confirm the origin of the bodies.

"It remains unclear, without this documentation, whether the exhibition has complied with Australia’s laws, and internationally recognised legal and ethical standards regarding the use of organs and specimens," the letter said.

Bodies from Prisoners of Conscience in China?

Zaller previously denied claims that the bodies were unethically sourced, saying that they were “unclaimed” bodies supplied by his business partner Dr. Sui Hongjin from Dalian, China. Sui is the director of the department of anatomy at Dalian Medical University and general manager of Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co. Ltd.
But according to the legal and medical experts, "credible evidence suggests that the exhibits may be the bodies and organs of executed prisoners of conscience including Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghurs, of whom there are currently over a million detained in China," the letter said, citing the update of two meticulous independent investigations into the allegations of forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China.
The letter also noted a report by the ABC from August when a U.N. human rights panel concluded that 1 million Uyghurs may be detained in China's labour camps on the basis of their religious beliefs.

"It is in these labour camps and 'black jails' that organ trafficking is known to occur on an unprecedented scale, via the harvesting of organs and tissues from executed prisoners of conscience," the letter said.

Through showing the bodies, the exhibition may be in breach of ethical and legal practice, the letter added.

"The extrajudicial killing of prisoners of conscience for their organs breaches fundamental human rights laws, and laws governing crimes against humanity, organ trafficking and organ transplant tourism," the letter said.

NSW Health May Be Breaching Own Laws in Approving Exhibit

"It remains unclear whether the exhibition complies with NSW’s anatomy licensing laws," the letter to the NSW Premier said.

"Despite repeated requests, NSW Health has failed to investigate the exhibition to ensure it complies with [its own policies]. We request that you direct NSW Health to conduct such an investigation."

In July, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) found that the New South Wales Health Department may have breached its own policies when it approved the exhibition.
According to the NSW Anatomy Act 1977, donors or their next of kin are required to provide written consent to allow for the “anatomical examination” of bodies after death. NSW Health’s procedural document also confirms that consent and authorisation are needed from a donor for any procedure that would permanently retain human tissue.

In response to RACP’s letter, NSW Health said that the Anatomy Act did not apply to the exhibition as it only dealt “with the anatomical examination of human deceased bodies” and not their display.

Professor Ian Kerridge, chair of RACP’s ethics committee, said NSW Health’s response was concerning.

“There are legislation, regulations, and policies that apply to the movement of cells, tissues, body parts, and bodies across borders,” he said, reported Fairfax.

“In any case, what is troubling here is not simply the laws that surround these types of activities but the ethics of doing so, and on this, the state and Commonwealth governments are silent.”

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge said in April, “We all believe in the dignity of human beings, and treating people with dignity and respect both in life and in death. This exhibition grossly breaches that principle … grossly indignifies people who cannot prove … [that they] gave their pre-informed consent to this.”

International Concern

Ethical and legal concerns have led to the banning of similar exhibitions of human corpses in other places, including Hawaii, France, Seattle, and Israel, as well as more recently, in Vietnam. The exhibits were suspended because organisers were unable to provide information about where the bodies came from.

The letter to the NSW Premier noted that trading in tissue and organ trafficking are serious modern slavery offences in Australia and around the world.

“On 6 June 2018, the NSW Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act 2018, which provides for the prohibition of trading in tissue. This provision has extraterritorial effect. Australia’s Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) also provides for offences of organ trafficking,” the letter said.

“Using human organs and tissues without consent for financial profit is the antithesis of international ethical and legal practice as set out in the Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplantation and the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs.”

NSW Health has been reached for comment.