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April 24, 2007

Professors explore ethics of Body Worlds

The Pritzker School of Medicine hosted an American Medical Association (AMA) panel discussion on Body Worlds II, a Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) exhibit featuring human bodies and body parts. The discussion centered on ethical and moral issues related to the exhibit.

Panelists included U of C medical school Professors Farr Curlin, Peter Angelos, and Callum Ross, along with the Divinity School’s Cynthia Lindner.

All the panelists agreed that profit is the primary motive for Body Worlds, but some also argued that the exhibit provides intellectual benefits.

“[The exhibit] takes anatomy out of the lab and operating room and makes it more accessible to the public,” Angelos said.

Curlin brought up the “concepts of studying and curiosity in the Christian tradition.” He emphasized that curiosity should ultimately lead to studying, which he described as “the desire to learn as to connect with life we’re able to experience, as well as the life of God.”

Amid claims that some of the poses of the human bodies are “promiscuous,” the panelists discussed whether it is moral to put preserved bodies in positions that can be perceived as provocative. Linder claimed that these body positions actually demonstrate “human activity engaged in a dignified way.”

Ross, however, argued that the exhibit is provocative because the “way [the] bodies are displayed is artistic [and] not particularly educational.” Instead, he said that “the act of dissection is learning.”

Angelos concurred, saying that “if you really want to learn, you’re not going to learn by Body Worlds.”

Given that there is no age limit for the exhibit, the panelists questioned whether Body Worlds is appropriate for children.

“Children can communicate with grown-ups in the process of learning.” Linder said.

Ross echoed this sentiment. “Kids can learn that our bodies display common traits, but also subtle differences,” such that the human body becomes “demystified,” he said.

Curlin, however, said that the exhibit, rather than demystifying the human body, introduced new questions, especially referring to the complexity of blood vessels he observed.

The panelists also touched on how medical students should view the exhibit. Linder said this exhibit could help future doctors learn to communicate with patients “who know little about their bodies” and who feel as if their bodies might be objectified by the doctors.

“[The] tension between looking at cadavers as objects of art and thinking that these bodies were actually people [parallels the tension evoked when doctors] see a patient as just another patient with problems [rather than as] a specific person,” Angelos said. He added that the “recognition of the patient’s input and understanding” is pivotal for doctors.

The discussion ended with warnings from the panelists about the commercialization of medical science.

“[Money sometimes] makes us turn a blind eye,” Curlin said.

Angelos called for a more transparent oversight of how Body Worlds organizers obtained the bodies, even though organizers said the bodies were obtained with prior consent.

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