Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Cadaver provenance

Showing plasticized cadavers is fine, so long as exhibitors can prove the bodies were properly donated.

With two temporary exhibits of plastic-infused, partly dissected cadavers in California, the Legislature is poised to consider a bill that would ensure that these popular shows are legitimate. It would require operators of the touring displays to provide evidence that the bodies were properly donated.

The exhibits are unquestionably riveting and educational. Depending on the viewer's tastes, they might be seen as macabre or beautiful, or both. Either way, they should have to follow commonly accepted norms for decent treatment of the dead.

Body Worlds, whose exhibit recently opened at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, has no problem with Assembly Bill 1519. Spokesmen say they already have signed permission from the deceased people whose cadavers or organs are on display. Premier Exhibitions, whose "Bodies Revealed" show in Sacramento is scheduled to end April 27, opposes the bill. The company said it legitimately acquired cadavers from China but doesn't know the identities of the donors, relying instead on authorization from Chinese medical and scientific organizations.

That's exactly what arouses suspicion, according to the bill's author, Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), who is of Chinese descent. Chinese culture traditionally rejects body donation, let alone donation for this kind of exhibit. There have been unproven allegations that Premier obtained its cadavers via the global black market in bodies and organs. But the company's defense isn't completely reassuring, considering China's human rights record and suspicions, also unproved, that Chinese prisoners have been used as unwitting organ donors.

At this point, Premier is asking for the bill to be amended so that it would not apply retroactively. Company officials say that the exhibits are now so old that a search for proper documentation would probably prove futile. But that doesn't mean the company should continue to pull in profits indefinitely, using cadavers of people who may or may not have been willing donors. Polymer-infused bodies have long lives, so to speak. Premier should be given a couple of years to create exhibits that meet ethical standards.

Aside from that concession, the Legislature should pass Ma's bill and insist that those standards not be weakened for a flashy, if informative, new way of showcasing the human body.