13 March 2006

body worlds

body worlds

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has been hosting an exhibit called "Body Worlds" since October.

The exhibit involves actual human corpses that have been dissected and plastinated in order to prevent decay. They are then set in a variety of poses, along with information to educate visitors about the body, various organ systems, and so on. This particular exhibit involves 200 specimens, ranging from entire corpses to individual organs.

While ghoulish, the exhibit is also reportedly pretty cool. But is there an ethical issue here? Most of us, I suspect, would allow for the use of human cadavers in medical training, though perhaps only with the prior consent of the deceased. But we also likely believe - along with our legal system - that the intentional mutilation of a corpse is immoral.

Where does this exhibit fall? Is it sufficiently educational? Or does it transgress some boundary that pushes it into the realm of commodification of corpses for the purposes of entertainment and is that morally acceptable? Since the exhibit includes some corpses of children, what are we to make of that, particularly in terms of consent?

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a pair of editorials in the Sunday paper, one by scholar and ethicist Anita Allen, entitled "Body Ethics, Body Aesthetics," and one by the Franklin Institute's vice president of exhibit and program development Steven L. Snyder, entitled "A Singular Opportunity for Teaching - Ethically." Allen finds the exhibit ethically objectionable while Snyder, of course, does not.

What do you think? How would one approach this issue from the standpoint of Christian moral theology? What's at stake in the discussion? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.