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BODIES OF EVIDENCE

05-01-2010

Bodies

The organisers of Bodies Revealed at Birmingham’s Custard Factory have so far failed to respond to our requests to identify the source of the specimens used in their exhibition – prompting fears that they may have been secured under duress. Now Dr David Nicholl, who raised the alarm, is demanding an investigation by the Human Tissue Authority.

Stephen Wicks
Head of Regulation for the HTA
Eastern England, Central England and London

Dear Mr Wicks

I am writing to you as according to the HTA website, you are the Head of Regulation for the HTA for Central England. I would like to lodge a formal request that the Human Tissue Authority regulator investigates whether the Custard Factory in Birmingham is in regulatory breach of the Human Tissue Act (2004).

Currently the Custard Factory is hosting the Bodies Revealed Exhibition until January 30th. This exhibition is hosted by Premier Exhibitions, a US publicly listed company, whose Medical Director, Dr Roy Porter, stated that the bodies being exhibited are originally from China (interview in November 2009), a country notorious for human rights abuses.

In 2008, the Attorney General of New York State successfully sued Premier Exhibitions:

NEW YORK, NY (May 29, 2008) – Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that he has reached a settlement with Premier Exhibitions (“Premier”) (NYSE: PRXI), the developer of the “Bodies” exhibitions, that brings an end to Premier’s practice of using bodies of undocumented origins in their exhibitions. As a result of the settlement, Premier must now obtain documentation demonstrating the cause of death and origins of the cadavers and body parts it displays as well as proof that the decedent consented to the use of his or her remains in such a manner. In addition, all prior visitors to the New York City Bodies exhibit are eligible for a refund of the price of their ticket.

Premier operates the popular “Bodies” exhibitions which display human bodies and body parts. Bodies exhibitions are open at locations around the world, including New York City’s South Street Seaport. Currently, all of the bodies on display were citizens or residents of China. Advocacy groups and media reports have alleged that some of the bodies on exhibit were Chinese prisoners who were executed. Although Premier previously maintained that the allegations were without basis, an investigation by Attorney General Cuomo showed that the company was unable to demonstrate the cause of death or the origin of the decedents.

“The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “Despite repeated denials, we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner. Respect for the dead and respect for the public requires that Premier do more than simply assure us that there is no reason for concern. This settlement is a start.”

http://www.ag.ny.gov/media_center/2008/may/may29a_08.html

Currently, this exhibition is taking place with an appropriate licence from the HTA, and according to your website, the designated individual responsible is Mr Nicholas Morgan from Big Cat Group.

It is not clear to me how much of this information was available to the HTA when they granted the licence for this exhibition, but I have a number of concerns.

1. Can Premier Exhibitions, the Big Cat Group and/or Mr Morgan (as the designated individual under the HTA licence) guarantee that the bodies being exhibited are not those of executed prisoners from China? Given that in August 2009, the Times reported that, according to the Chinese government’s own data, 2/3 of organ transplants were from executed prisoners, it seems highly likely that the exhibits on display are from such an ethically dubious source. The editor of the website the Stirrer has approached Premier Exhibitions in the US to comment on this, and to date, they have refused to comment.

2. On what basis was informed consent obtained and what record is there of this actually having taken place? Did the next-of-kin give specific consent for the commercial exploitation of their relatives tissue? Did the next-of-kin give specific consent for the publication of images of the autopsy material (as is indicated as good practice by the HTA)? If these subjects did originate from Chinese death row prisons, on what basis was consent obtained from the condemned subjects (were they threatened or offered preferential treatment or a more ‘humane’ execution?)? What change in practice has occurred since the May 2008 ruling from the State of New York to indicate that Premier can guarantee that those who have been subjected to torture or executions are not used as part of this exhibition?

3. On the exhibition web-site it states that “According to Premier’s suppliers certify that the specimens in the BODIES REVEALED exhibitions have been donated by the deceased or their authorized family member for education and that the specimens died of natural causes. Premier cannot, however, independently guarantee the origins of the specimens.” This latter point concerns me as the recent HTA regulatory guidance from last month is quite explicit that “Site-visit inspections undertaken by the HTA indicate that there is lower than expected compliance with standards relating to consent and governance, including traceability

4. "at least a third of the exhibits are from executed prisoners" according to ABCs 20/20 programme when they interviewed one of Premier's suppliers in China.

Clearly, Premier exhibitions (and their commercial partners) are not able to demonstrate the standards of traceability or informed consent that are both in the spirit and letter of the HTA Act. As such I would request that you urgently investigate whether this exhibition is in breach of the HTA, and should such a breach be identified, that criminal proceedings are instituted. Given the seriousness of the allegations, I would request that this is performed urgently as the exhibition is due to close on January 30th.

Yours sincerely

Dr David Nicholl

Premier Exhibitions and/or Big Cat Group are invited to clarify this issue and will be given a full right of reply. Just contact editor@thestirrer.com

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