All civilizations have taken pains to dispose of their dead with dignity. Most religions prescribe the manner in which bodies may be disposed of, and except for extreme circumstances such as war or widespread disease, all cultures reject mass burials or other mass disposals of bodies. Certainly the advance of science has been aided by allowing some bodies to be autopsied for medical study, but even here the purpose is to help the living not to profit from the dead. Yet, Gunther von Hagens and his imitators have managed to ignore the nearly universal abhorrence of mistreatment of the dead and have not only escaped being shunned but have attracted millions to see their morbid handiwork.
It is hard to imagine that a display of dead baby seals, stripped of their skin, cut in cross-sections and suffused with plastic would not draw more protest than the grisly remains of humans exhibited in similar fashion. But the human body is no longer special. We've grown accustomed to thinking that we "own" our bodies and can do with them whatever we please. It's not that big a leap to imagine that we might use others' bodies as we choose after they're dead. And how much longer before we start questioning whether some bodies -- say, of the terminally ill or incapacitated -- might be expropriated for utilitarian purposes a little ahead of schedule?
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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