In the middle of downtown New York City, just blocks from Wall Street and right beside a row of sunny cafes where tourists sit along the sidewalk eating lunch is a meandering room filled with body parts.
In one case are a femur, pancake-thick slices of sternum, a fetal skull and the auditory ossicles—the bones of the inner ear, the smallest bones in the body. In another case are a palm’s arch, a foot’s sole and a jaw. A third holds the lima bean-like pituitary gland, thin slices from a massive goiter and a cancerous thyroid, as well as a healthy one, which is whimsically shaped like a butterfly. There are displays with bits of brain and sections of spinal cord and others with voice boxes and bronchial trees. This is not some bizarro morgue, nor the set of a zombie film, but the stunning BODIES exhibit, which reopened this February after a makeover that added an audio tour, new age music and more than 120 new specimens.
BODIES is run by Premier Exhibitions, an Atlanta-based company that coordinates museum shows around the world. They have another exhibit on the Titanic, as well as other BODIES exhibits at the Museum of Idaho, in Idaho Falls, Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel and in Atlanta; one in Tulsa, Oklahoma recently closed. While the exhibits have the admirable aim of enlightening us about our bodies—“the only thing you carry with you from the moment you are born until your very last breath”, reads a quote at the entrance to the New York show—they have also had their share of controversy. The bodies in BODIES are from China and Premier has not been able to unequivocally confirm that they didn’t come from executed prisoners or victims of torture. The company insists that all the cadavers came from individuals who chose to donate their bodies to medical science. But when the show came to Birmingham, England last year, Dr. David Nicholl, a British human rights activist demanded that the Human Tissue Authority shut it down because it was a crime scene. “We are asking a simple question – ‘Can you guarantee the bodies are not those of people executed in China?’”, said Nicholl. “If the organizers are unable to answer this, then we think the authorities should be looking to close this exhibition.”
China has a history of body part dealing. A 1998 TIME article discussed an FBI sting that arrested two men in association with organ smuggling. The Chinese government denied “such incidents” happen in China. But Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu explained in the article just how it does happen. After the execution of a prisoner the Chinese authorities simply confiscate whatever organs they might need, without asking the prisoner’s family for permission. Doctors at military hospitals then transplant the organs into wealthy foreigners willing to pay up to $40,000 for the operation. “Some activists fear that Chinese officials may have broadened the kinds of crimes punishable by death in order to line their own pockets,” reports the article.
Regulating the body part trade is not a problem unique to China. Earlier this year a local Arizona news station reported on that state’s legal but unregulated body part trade, which, apparently, is flourishing. “Your nose. Your ear. Your arm. Your leg. Name any body part, and there’s a virtual price tag on it,” read the report. Certain companies have specialized in processing bodies donated to science. The parts are used legally, for anything from teaching biology class to biological research to testing orthopedic products. “It’s a business unlike any other,” said the head of one firm involved in the business. “As a business, we still have employees; we have to keep the lights on.” When asked what fees body parts went for the company wouldn’t say but the news station dug up a “top-secret” cost list from a few years back. Eyes and lungs go for $375; a shoulder is $430; a torso, $1500; and an entire leg, $1800. Apparently in the past few years prices have doubled.
One woman recently tried to cash in her body parts to pay her children’s student loans (which totaled nearly a quarter of a million dollars) by posting an ad on Craigslist. “Use my body for anything legal, or medically experimental,” the ad read. “I am 5’10” 200 lbs and have all my organs in working order. Take my blood, take my plasma. Drill into my brain, my leg, my arm. Tap my heart, my liver, my kidney. If you eliminate my children’s student loans, I will give you my life!”