Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Exhibits of Corpses Under Fire

SACRAMENTO - When Assemblywoman Fiona Ma toured the exhibit, she became disgusted by what she saw: the posed and preserved remains of Chinese corpses, their flesh removed to expose their organs, muscle, sinew and veins.

These touring displays of human remains, such as the "Body Worlds 2" exhibition currently at the San Jose Museum of Tech Innovation, are touted as educational and artistic, and have prompted strong public reaction.

Now they have spurred proposed legislation, aimed at curbing what Ma calls a "freak show" that defiles a culture that values the sanctity of the human body and prohibits even autopsies.

"All the bodies are clearly Chinese," Ma said Tuesday in an interview. "To see these plastinized individuals dismantled in various stages, for display in a commercial setting for profit, really disgusted me as an Asian."

In response, the San Francisco Democrat has written AB 1519, which would require exhibitors of human remains to provide written evidence of consent from the person, or from relatives after the death. She wants violators to face a $10,000 fine for each undocumented body or body part. Undocumented fetuses, which have begun appearing in such displays, would count as a violation.

Cities would have to review exhibitors' documentation before granting a permit.

The bill is scheduled to face its first legislative test in the Assembly entertainment committee today.

"There is much speculation and many suspicions," said Ma spokesman Bill Barnes, "about the origin of the bodies and parts."

"Body Worlds" spokeswoman Angelina Whalley, however, insists its displays have been made possible by donors who have consented to have their bodies used in the displays.

Whalley and representatives of other similar exhibits said the displays operate within the law and are intended to be educational.

In some cases, when visitors see the benefits of exercise or the maladies of smoking, they are "inspired to make healthier and more educated lifestyle choices," said Bruce Eskowitz, a spokesman for "Bodies Revealed," a similar exhibit showing in Sacramento.

Within the past few years, the number of traveling exhibitions has grown to more than a half-dozen, drawing millions of visitors worldwide. Body Worlds, whose exhibit is on display at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation through Jan. 26, bills itself as the originals in this emerging art form.

The company hails its founder, Gunther von Hagens, as the pioneer of the "plastination" technique of preservation. The process involves extracting bodily fluids from cadavers and replacing them with silicon rubber and epoxy, which results in pliable forms.

Real-life poses are intended to emphasize various parts of the human body or muscle positions during such activities as pitching a baseball, or riding a bike or skateboard.

Ma's bill is just a step toward what she would prefer: banning such displays. She's been counseled, however, such an attempt would fail on constitutional grounds.

Ma also fears the bodies, which enter the country labeled as art objects, may contain diseases. And she is also concerned that some exhibitions won't properly perform plastic embalming, allowing leakage and a health threat.

But in its current form her bill focuses on what she believes is a human rights issue.

She would like international cooperation to investigate the veracity of documentation exhibitors would have to submit under her bill - but she also knows that's unlikely. Human rights organizations have alleged that the bodies are obtained illegally through the Chinese government.

"There's plenty of questions about how these bodies from Asia got here," Ma said. "These people deserve dignity after death."