‘Body Worlds’ Challenged to Provide DNA

Gutmann asked for DNA samples from the bodies, to establish whether any of those on display were practitioners of Falun Gong. 

By Matthew Robertson | July 17, 2013

Ethan Gutmann stands in the Maria-Theresien-Platz in Wien, Austria, where the traveling ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition, which includes human bodies that have been injected full of plastic and cut open for display, is being held. Gutmann asked for DNA samples from the bodies, to establish whether any of those on display were practitioners of Falun Gong. (Sonja Ozimek)

 Ethan Gutmann stands in the Maria-Theresien-Platz in Wien, Austria, where the traveling ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition, which includes human bodies that have been injected full of plastic and cut open for display, is being held. Gutmann asked for DNA samples from the bodies, to establish whether any of those on display were practitioners of Falun Gong. (Sonja Ozimek)

The dead human bodies preserved by being injected full of plastic by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens have toured the world for decades, and made their author a very wealthy man. For years, too, the Body World exhibitions have also been a rich source of controversy, dogged by claims that the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners—including prisoners of conscience—have been splayed open and put on display for a paying public.

Now, von Hagens has been challenged to put to rest some of those allegations, by supplying DNA samples of the specimens currently on display at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Wien, Austria.

Ethan Gutmann, a researcher who has written extensively about organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China—primarily practitioners of Falun Gong, a persecuted spiritual discipline—said on July 12, standing in the Maria-Theresien-Platz outside the museum, that DNA samples would effectively resolve the controversy.

“We now have a show which is traveling around which may have the DNA of murdered prisoners of conscience,” Gutmann said in an interview with NTD Television, putting emphasis on the word “may.”

“The legs on some of the female specimens appear to be unnaturally short,” Gutmann said, based on observations he made when he visited the exhibition in Wien recently. “The frames are a little frail; the skulls are a little fine. I’m not an expert, but these look Chinese.”

Gutmann’s suspicion is not based only on the anatomical features he observed. In 1999 von Hagens set up shop in Dalian, a city in northeast China, and acquired an unknown number of bodies, some of which were used for his exhibitions.

At that time, Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced Chinese official, was mayor. Bo is now under detention and awaits trial for violation of Communist Party discipline and a range of other offenses, but was known to have been a protégé to the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, and an early proponent of Jiang’s campaign to persecute Falun Gong.

According to a 2004 investigative report in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, by the year 2001: “Around von Hagens’ corpse factory in Dalian, there were already three labor camps and prisons. Among them were the ‘No. 3 Provincial Prison’ and the ‘[Dalian City] Reeducation Through Labor Camp.’ In the notorious ‘[Dalian] Yaojia Detention Center,’ political prisoners are detained, among them adherents of the spiritual movement Falun Gong.”

Later, von Hagens won an injunction that forbid Der Spiegel from making the claim that he used the corpses of executed prisoners.

In an interview with the New York Times two years later, though, von Hagens said: “When I came here, [Sui Hongjin] said we’ll have no problem with Chinese bodies… He said we can use unclaimed bodies. Now it’s difficult, but then it was no problem at all.”

Sui Hongjin was von Hagen’s former apprentice who split from von Hagen’s operation in 2002 and began operating his own plastination factory, supplying, among others, the plastinated body touring company called “Bodies: The Exhibition.” While von Hagens denies using executed Chinese prisoners any longer, “Bodies: The Exhibition” carries a disclaimer saying that some of its bodies came from the Chinese police.

Gutmann says his approach to calling on DNA samples from von Hagens is two-pronged: first, it will establish whether Chinese bodies were used in his exhibits, which allows for the next step, of collecting the DNA of family members of Falun Gong practitioners who were killed in China, so as to test for any relationship. Secondly, it will put pressure on the exhibitition that Sui is associated with, to also provide DNA about the bodies that it has.

The rivalry between von Hagens and Sui should propel him to cooperate, Gutmann said in a telephone interview.

“There is another Body show going around the world. It’s actually bigger. It’s run by Von Hagens’ former manager Sui Hongjin,” Gutmann said in his statement, which was read out to the press and public. “His bodies come from the PSB. His sponsor, Premier Exhibitions admits it. Sui has plastinated an estimated thousand bodies. We have a saying in English: every criminal makes one mistake. Could shipping murder victims loaded with DNA around the free world qualify as a mistake? It sounds crazy that someone would take that chance. But let’s find out.”

Gutmann continued: “If any samples are Chinese we can match them with DNA from Chinese families who lost a loved one because they were Falun Gong. That will take years. But it’s worth it, because the families have the moral authority in this case.”