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Show on human specimens makes ethicists squeamish
( 2004-01-13 22:16) (China Daily By Xing Zhigang)

A controversial exhibition on human specimens in Beijing has aroused hot debate among local residents and academic circles.

An exhibition of plasticized human bodies attracts viewers' curiosities and debates in Beijing. [China Daily]
The show in a 700-square-metre hall of the Beijing Museum of Natural History features six plasticized human bodies and nearly 200 plasticized human tissues and organs including spleens and lungs.

It opened on New Year's day and will run to early April.

The human specimens on display, provided by the Dalian Academy of Medical Sciences, were made through the technology of plasticization.

Unlike the traditional way of formalinization, the new technology can make the human bodies and organs look as if there are original ones in the best possible way, through chemical means.

The plasticization of a human body usually costs over 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), according to media reports.

Similar events were held in Singapore and Hong Kong in the past two years and were welcomed, or at least taken for granted, by local people.

As the first of its kind in Beijing, the display has drawn wide media coverage although organizers of the event has been trying to keep it low profile.

The museum did not stage any promotional activities about the exhibition and classifies it as only a "temporary display''.

Rao Chenggang, curator of the museum, says organizers of the exhibition have to consider its acceptability among the public.

"After all, it is the first large-scale exhibition on human specimens in the capital city and some people may find it unacceptable,'' he says.

The museum curator, however, thinks highly of its value for popular science, stressing that the exhibition will help people know more about the human body.

Shen Jingwu, assistant curator of the museum, says a major task of popular science is to promote scientific knowledge among adults and even children.

"So popular science institutions like our museum should organize such exhibitions to help the public know about death in an accurate way.''.

Researchers at the museum say visitors may feel less uncomfortable with plasticized human specimens than formalinized ones.

What's more important, these specimens can present a much clearer picture of the functions of the human body and organs.

However, some visitors are offended.

The Beijing Youth Daily quotes a visitor as saying that some specimens reportedly came from the remains of volunteer donors.

"If the report is true, putting human specimens on display for money seems to be an injustice to those volunteer donors,'' the visitor was quoted as saying.

Visitors pay an entry fee of 15 yuan (US$1.8) each.

While popular-science workers hail the educational and scientific significance of the exhibition, ethicists are sceptical about the commercial event.

"Remains as they are, these human specimens should have dignity and be offered respect because they once had life,'' says Qiu Zongren, a well-known ethicist.

Professor Chen Tianmin, a medical ethicist, says exhibiting human specimens for money goes against social morality.

Although pursuit of economic gains has led to unusual things in the country, the professor says, the exhibition should by no means be accepted.

"Ethically, such an inhumane move is absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese,'' he says.

Professor Chen says remains and human specimens should only be used in medical education and scientific research.

"To display these specimens for money is a pure commercial act, which goes against social ethics and should be criticized.''

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