Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Seattle City Council: Informed Consent For Commercial Display Of Human Remains

by Matt Rosenberg July 12th, 2010

SUMMARY: The Seattle City Council begins consideration this week of a bill requiring written consent from the deceased or his or her legal representative for use of human remains in educational or commercial exhibits. The proposed legislation is directed in large part toward exhibits such as “Bodies: The Exhibition,” for which no documentation of consent was provided for the public display of the corpses used. If the bill clears committee it will got to the full council for a vote. UPDATE, 7/14/10: I talk about this on KOMO 1000 Radio, today – audio file and transcript included.

BACKGROUND: In 2006-2007 and in 2009-2010, a popular commercial show titled “Bodies: The Exhibition” came to Seattle. The show has also been staged in other North American cities. Corpses used in the show were preserved through a special process called “plastination” which allows a close look at musculo-skeletal structures, diseased organs and other aspects of the human body.

While widely hailed by many visitors as educational, “Bodies” also attracted controversy because the corpses were unclaimed bodies from Chinese prisons and on cultural grounds emphasized by Seattle-area Chinese-American community leaders. No information was made available on the causes of imprisonment or death of the individuals and no consent forms could be produced permitting the display of their bodies. The exhibitor, Premier Exhibitions, states at the FAQ page for its most recent Seattle “Bodies” show:

“Premier cannot independently verify the complete provenance of the human remains in this exhibition. They were obtained from a plastination facility in China, which received them from medical universities in China. These medical universities received the remains from medical examiner authorities in the Chinese Bureau of Police. The specimens are unclaimed by next of kin and there is no available donor documentation. After the bodies were unclaimed at death, they were ultimately delivered to a medical school for education and research. Where known, information about the identities, medical histories and causes of death is kept strictly confidential.”

Premier Exhibitions is a publicly-traded company with a market capitalization of $54 million and stock at $1.16 a share late last month. “Bodies: The Exhibition” is currently listed as on display in 10 North American cities. Controversy is now surfacing in St. Louis. A Missouri congressman has introduced federal legislation that would attempt to ensure no prisoners’ bodies are used in exhibits of human remains, The Hill reports.

The Seattle bill was to be referred Monday July 12 by the full City Council to the Housing, Health, Human Services and Culture Committee – chaired by Council Member Nick Licata – for discussion and a possible vote as early as Wednesday July 14. If and when the bill is voted out of committee, it will go to the full council for discussion and a vote.

KEY LINK: Council Bill # 116916, “an ordinance regulating the commercial display of human remains, establishing that unlawful commercial display of human remains is a civil infraction, and creating a new section 14.14.010 of the Seattle Municipal Code.”

FINDINGS:

  • State law, The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, Ch. 68.64 RCW, “requires any donor and specified authorized individuals to authorize the use of anatomical gifts for transplantation, therapy, research, and education purposes.”
  • “Officials responsible for unclaimed human remains are required to make a good faith attempt to notify the next of kin of the decedent.”
  • “The public commercial display of dead human bodies must be regulated to protect individual bodily integrity, as well as the social and cultural values of the City.”
  • “It is the intent of the City Council to require persons who participate in the public commercial display of dead human bodies to provide evidence of informed consent specific to the public exhibition and display of human remains from the decedent or relatives of humans whose remains are put on display, and to provide for the continued use of human remains in the educational, medical, and scientific communities to promote human health and safety.”

KEY PROVISION: “It shall be unlawful to display to the public human remains for consideration or commercial purposes without valid written authorization from the deceased, which consent may be given in the last will of the deceased, or by a person who has the right to control the disposition of the remains pursuant to Ch. 68.50 RCW or Ch. 68.64 RCW, or any successor legislation. The Director of Financial and Administrative Services or the Director’s designee shall determine the adequacy of the documentation offered to establish consent.”

ADDITIONAL PROVISIONS: Fines of up to $250 per day would be allowed to be levied for violations of the legislation. The city attorney would be empowered to file civil actions to stop violations. There is a “rebuttable presumption” of compliance with the bill for human remains in possession of a museum accredited by by the American Association of Museums or a museum facility of an accredited college or university.

RELATED MATERIALS:

Washington State’s Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, RCW 68.64

San Francisco Police Code Article 11.1, approved 2005 – “Commercial Display Of Dead Human Bodies.”

Seattle City Council Committees – agendas, meeting minutes, video archives.

4 Responses to “Seattle City Council: Informed Consent For Commercial Display Of Human Remains”

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  3. I would ask the Seattle City Council this: is “informed consent” (as we characterize and understand it) even remotely possible to obtain (again, in the way we require for validity) from terminally ill or condemned prisoners in the Chinese Gulag? I would hope that the esteemed council members realize they are making a farce of a serious issue (and themselves) but more importantly, the departed who have been put on display – if they imagine for one moment that a realistic notion of “informed consent” is achievable from people who are held in Chinese prisons. Let’s get real – either ban this, or wake up to the human rights conditions in China (and other parts of the world) and take your lumps for countenancing this freak show – but don’t delude yourselves into reasoning that you have honored the wishes of departed souls who have been subjected to this horror.

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