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Human Bodies: Commercial Exhibition

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to updating the Human Tissue Act 2004 to ensure that human bodies being imported into the United Kingdom for commercial exhibitions are governed with the same ethical and legal responsibilities that pertain to bodies originating from the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, the law requires that people who wish to be displayed in public after death must give written permission. This does not apply to bodies imported from abroad and any change to the provisions would require amendment of the Human Tissue Act. The Government are working with the Human Tissue Authority to consider what more can be done within existing legislation to address any concerns around the display of bodies.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. The Human Tissue Authority does a very good job. However, as the noble Baroness said, the key provisions of the Act do not apply to bodies imported from abroad. This means that, when it comes to commercial exhibitions such as the Real Bodies exhibition in Birmingham last year, there is no guarantee that the bodies used are not those of executed prisoners, including prisoners of conscience from China. The noble Baroness said that the Government were prepared to work with the HTA to look at the existing legislation. Does she accept that we need an amendment to the HT Act in order to be able to regulate these commercial proceedings? Will she agree to meet noble Lords to discuss that?

My Lords, I am always happy to meet noble Lords to discuss this issue. As the noble Lord knows, changes to primary legislation will be required to activate the change that he is seeking. To be clear, the Human Tissue Authority ensured that the Birmingham exhibition met licensing standards and licensed it in line with the law. We have no evidence to suggest that the exhibition contained the cadavers of political or other prisoners from China.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that in a statement in 2004 Gunther von Hagens, who is behind the plastination of bodies, said that he could not prove that the bodies had not been executed? He has publicly stated that he received fresh bodies from which livers had been removed only a few hours previously, indicating that this may be the tip of the iceberg of organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience. This has resulted in a call from the medical fraternity for 400 papers to be withdrawn from the literature, because consent has probably not been given by those people who were deemed to be patients.

My Lords, as I have said, written consent is deemed to be necessary in the UK. It is different for other countries. There are allegations and concerns about organs being removed from people who are being held, for instance, in re-education camps in Xinjiang province, though we do not have evidence to corroborate this. We are working closely with the HTA to ensure that consent is sought in line with the countries concerned.

My Lords, there is a much more fundamental ethical issue at play here. Leaving aside the need for cadavers and human tissue for scientific and medical training purposes—which is regulated by the HTA—it seems likely that all the exhibitions which use plasticised cadavers and foetuses for supposedly educational purposes could use modern materials and production to create the same exhibits. That begs the question: why use cadavers and human body parts at all? If the answer is that people want to see such things and will pay to do so, I remind noble Lords that people used to flock in their thousands to see public executions until 1868. Does the HTA exist to regulate what, in this case, is akin to ghoulish curiosity and its manifestations? What is the ethical position and who should be examining it?

My Lords, of course the ethical position is not one for government. The Government have made law and set up the Human Tissue Authority in primary legislation. The exhibitions that have been taking place are in line with the law. However, I understand the noble Baroness’s point, which is valid, and I have empathy with what she says.

Out of interest, I looked at the exhibition review and interview in What’s On: Your What’s on News and Culture Guide. This is what it wrote about the exhibition:

“Fabulously fascinating, incredibly informative, gloriously gruesome … Real Bodies The Exhibition is an unforgettable experience for sure”.

That is the other side—it is not my view, I am just saying—but I understand the noble Baroness’s point.

My Lords, I have never quite understood the morbid curiosity that drives some people to attend commercial exhibitions of human bodies which, in many cases, are imported. There are two questions: what criteria are being used by local authorities to allow such public exhibitions to take place; and what efforts are being made to ensure that such bodies are not imported from countries such as China where the illegal harvesting of organs is rife? We are repeatedly told about the representations that the Government have made at a very high level to the Government of China. We have never been told the reaction of the Chinese Government.

My Lords, involuntary organ removal is illegal under Chinese law. In January 2015, China committed to stop removing organs from executed criminals without their prior consent or the permission of their relatives. But NGOs have reported that organ harvesting from ethnic minority groups, religious groups and political prisoners predominates in this practice and that the trade could cover 60,000 to 100,000 people per year. As my noble friend Lady Goldie said on Monday in answer to an Oral Question, we cannot find evidence to corroborate that at this moment.