Friday, February 29, 2008

And The Cheese Stands Alone .....

WQED’s “On Q” hosted a special edition town hall meeting on the controversy surrounding “Bodies: The Exhibition”. Moderated by Chris Moore, the show’s expert panel included Director Joanna Haas from the Carnegie Science Center (host of the exhibit) as well as other area leaders in the fields of religion, science and ethics.

The evening provided not one, not two, but actually three surprises. The initial surprise was that the Carnegie Science Center agreed to appear in such an unscripted, public forum. I wrongly surmised that there must be a fair amount of support for the Center among the other panelists or the Center would not have braved the event in the first place. But I was wrong. The only panelist and maybe the only person in the entire studio to communicate any meaningful support for the exhibit was Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical examiner. Every other expert guest expressed varying degrees of moral and ethical concern. Every audience comment, whether on camera or off, was not a happy one. Groans and heavy sighs were commonplace.

The final surprise of the evening was the weakness and often downright silliness of the arguments put forth by the Science Center. Every flawed statement uttered by Ms. Haas was immediately put down by multiple parties. I would have felt sorry for her had the subject matter not been so very gruesome.

Ms. Haas opened by saying the decision to host the exhibit was a strategic one. The exhibit would provide the general public with a view of the human body previously only afforded the medical profession. Since their mission was to promote science education to the masses, they reasoned this unique opportunity was one they could not pass up.

Dr. Alan Meisel, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Bioethics and Health Law agreed there was obvious educational benefit to the exhibit. He cautioned that there was just something inherently wrong with this display, however. “In 50 years we will look back at this like it was a circus side-show. There are other ways to educate the public. Even now, frog dissections have been abolished in high school. Out of respect for the frog, we do the dissections by computer. Shouldn’t we respect a human as much as we respect a frog?”

Dr. Meisel went on to say that sometimes the best educational method may actually be the most undesirable choice. “I would imagine that the best way to teach Sex Ed would be to provide paid-for sex partners. But I can’t imagine anyone would think this approach would be appropriate no matter how successful the results were.”

Dr. Scott Miller, Chief of Medical Ethics at Allegheny General Hospital agreed with Dr. Meisel. He said the exhibit provided some educational value, but the same end results could be achieved in a different manner. He was troubled by the controversy of how the bodies had been obtained.

Ms. Haas tried to convince the crowd that all possible “due diligence” had been done. “Even 20/20 ended their show saying there was no conclusive evidence one way or another. We have belief in our documentation. These are unclaimed bodies or people who have given their consent.”

Bad move on Ms. Haas’ part. The crowd took off their gloves at this point.

“Do we really need absolute proof,” chimed Dr. Miller, “or is reasonable doubt good enough with something this important?”

Dr. Meisel agreed that the due diligence standard in this instance should be extremely high but opined that the standards applied by the Science Center “were not high enough for me.”

Father Jim Wehner from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said that moral framework was extremely important and that the end never justified the means. “The church was initially provided with information [from the Science Center] which said a good faith effort had been made to authenticate the bodies. But was there really enough investigation?”

Rabbi Daniel Schiff of the Agency for Jewish Learning pulled no punches. “This is no way to treat our dead. We have a responsibility to treat an unclaimed body with the same respect that we’d give a relative. And the question of consent is not even part of the issue. At issue is what moral standards do we wish for our society and culture? If I were to give consent to offer my body as food, for example….. If I agreed to have my body cut, packaged and sold at the grocer’s ….. Would our culture agree and abide with my wishes? Of course not. I am condemning this exhibit. We’re not importing cheese here. These are human beings we are talking about.”

Ms. Haas said their intent was the best. She reminded the panel that the Center had engaged many of them prior to contracting the exhibit as part of their “due diligence” on community perceptions and concerns. The Science Center was a prestigious organization after all and would never engage in anything untoward. Besides, the body exhibits had been touring the country for a few years by now. Pittsburgh and the Science Center were not the first to host the bodies. Other cities had concerns but had already worked through them. Ms. Haas was sure we would work through our concerns as well.

Another bad move.

Dr. Meisel lit into her. “I hate to have to remind you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You can’t just say, ‘Oh well, everyone else is doing it.’ And, ‘We’re prestigious and we’re making a lot of money.’ These are not good excuses.”

“Sure, you consulted with us at first,” the Rabbi said to Haas. “But you already had your mind made up. You were going to believe Premier no matter what we said and we knew it.”

Dr. Jim Weber, Professor of Business Ethics at Duquesne University sort of came to Ms Haas’ defense. “Just because something is profitable does not make it unethical. However we need to be very careful as to where these bodies come from. There is a pattern with China that raises questions. I have my concerns. I think we need greater certainty.”

You would think Haas would decide to just shut up and smile at this point. But no. She embarked upon the silly segment of her justification. She proudly proclaimed that the exhibit had prompted patrons to adopt a healthier and more responsible lifestyle. She anecdotally recounted how many people said they would quit smoking after seeing the diseased lung. And a surprising number of people had filled out organ donor cards, she chirped.

Groans were audible at this point.

“If this is such a fantastic way to get people to quit smoking …… then why are you charging a fee for this exhibit? Don’t you wish poor people to be healthy too? If this is in fact the case, the government should just take our cigarette tax money and pay for these exhibits to come to every school in every city instead of you charging admission to a few.”

Commander Maurita Bryant, Head of Pittsburgh Homicide, simply said she had not seen the exhibit and didn’t have plans to go. “I see too many dead bodies in my work every day. The hard part is trying to comfort the family of someone who’s been murdered. But there are always strangers who also gather around just to look and laugh and make jokes. Its hard to see this too. I wouldn’t want to go to the exhibit and have to see people pointing and laughing at those bodies there.” Commander Bryant went on to say she was currently an organ donor, but was now reconsidering that decision.

Everyone but Haas laughed. She had no more arguments. She finally decided it was time to just shut up and smile.


Mom de Guerre said...

I think the part when Chief Bryant commented that in a criminal investigation when money is involved the police consider that this encourages criminal behavior. Or, was it the sex for sale example? It was all so good I can't decide. Rabbi Schiff was wonderful. I hope they post it for reviewing.

Looking forward to KDKAradio Sunday at 4pm with Harry Wu and Dr. Todd Olson.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Interesting dynamic -- Rabbi Danny Schiff is on the ethics board; he was most critical of all towards Mayor Ravenstahl during the charity event inquiry.

Joana Haas is a good director and an asset to Pittsburgh. I think she is balancing a lot of interests, among the museums and its significant partners. I think Carnegie Museums and the Science Center operated in good faith throughout the history of event -- and I think recently revealed data are shaking a lot of our ethical foundations.

Mom de Guerre said...

BTW, its been posted now.

Robin Kirk said...

So interesting -- at first, Hass and Co. danced all around the consent issue -- I was itching for someone to bring up Mengele et al -- Nazi experimentation certainly was "educational," but I don't think Carnegie would mount an exhibit on how wonderful the information gathered from Auschwitz was for humankind...

Char said...

Schiff barely brushed by the Nazi thing with his comment about turning people into lampshades. Whether or not anyone in the room or anyone at home made the connection .... I'm certain Haas did.

Frank Shifreen said...

I have to respect Pittsburgh for having the conversation which should have been held in many other cities. Ms Haas came off like a toadying smarmy nazicrat. she Claims due diligence and trusts Premiere when absolutely no documentation as to the authenticity of consent has been produced or made public.What did Premiere show all these people? OK Show us the fake letter in Chinese that says this or that family allowed their 25 year old son who died suddenly with only a little hole in his head gave their consent to allow his body to be put on display for the educational laughter and titillation of western crowds who are tired of the fake blood in horror movies and need to see someone who is really dead. God help us. I felt that the experts did not go far enough to condemn the exhibition. Where is the evidence? And did anyone talk about the circumnavigation of the law about bringing in bodies?
Are they plastic models?
I do not think so
Thanks again Char for good writing
I am sorry that I am so angry about this
Frank Shifreen

Bram Reichbaum said...

Okay I'll just say it. UPMC. Huge, HUGE partners with the Museum in this endeavor and in many other endeavors .... HORRIBLE public relations instincts and an allergy to admitting mistakes.

I say good faith was employed -- Frank Shifreen has questions about due diligence. Okay. SOMEONE has to make a point about more sensitivity and diligence now that this civic conversation has come to light -- and I'm SPECULATING that UPMC is being stubborn.

Frank Shifreen said...

Bram Reichbaum says that good faith was employed. I respect Bram and like his blog. He knows Pittsburgh. I am an outsider. It seemed like a sham to me in my examination of documents available. The Rabbi said as much on the air. This goes beyond public relations. This is not just about Pittsburgh. It seems to me as if these exhibitions have been a mass delusion, where common morality and societal norms have been violated. This is a freak show. This is so simple. Dead bodies. No provenance or paper trail. Not consistent with the tenets of any major religion or civil moral code. For a few of us it has always been crystal clear.
It seems finally that people are waking up. It goes beyond politics
or political persuasion. There are a lot of problems in the world I know, but these exhibitions have particularly offended me. I am an artist, and this is not art. I am teacher, and this is not educational. Make lifelike models and put them in museums. Go to college and take anatomy and physiology. Do not find (or make) a dead body, take away it's human dignity and make it into a joke.
Death should not be entertainment.

Mom de Guerre said...

Has there been any indication that the panel discussion will have any concrete impact on the exhibit? It seemed like the Catholic representative was suggesting there were questions again, so maybe the ethics discussion will be re-opened? Have you heard anything?

Bram Reichbaum said...

Frank, thanks for what you say. I think our interpretations of "good faith" may be influenced a little by our differing opinions of the ethical line.

You say dead bodies are dead bodies, period. I would not be as concerned about that, were the bodies not those of political dissidents who were likely seized and tortured.

I believe the Science Center operated in good faith; then again, "the Science Center" is no more than a collection of individuals, each of which would have made their own calculations. Some of them must have been subject to pressure, peer pressure if nothing else, and some were probably manipulated by bad actors. I can only imagine once an agreement in principle had been reached to show the exhibit, it would have been tremendously difficult to backpedal.

Anonymous said...

My position is that all of the bodies exhibition companies lied and probably violated the the law by claiming that "a body" is a plastic model. A body is a cadaver that has been injected with plastic.
Premier has assured Institutions that it was telling the truth, and it was not. My feeling is that the agreeement to exhibit should be nullified because Premier lied.