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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 10:14 GMT
Q&A: Public autopsies
A planned public autopsy in London on Wednesday has been declared illegal by government officials.

BBC News Online examines the rules around carrying out an autopsy in public.

What is this story about?

Professor Gunther von Hagens is planning to carry out a public autopsy on the body of a 72-year-old German man who had donated his body to the controversial Bodyworld's exhibition of preserved human corpses.

Professor von Hagens says the autopsy will help the ordinary public to understand what the procedure is about.

He is believed to have sold in the region of 500 tickets at 12 each for the event at London's Atlantis Gallery.

Why is it controversial?

Professor von Hagens' public autopsy would be the first of its kind in Britain since the 1830s.

In the 16th century, autopsies were carried out routinely in specially constructed theatres across Europe and were seen as a form of educational entertainment. Today, autopsies are restricted to medical schools.

Government officials have declared that it is illegal and that if he goes ahead he will be committing a criminal offence.

Is it illegal?

Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy is responsible for ensuring compliance with the 1984 Anatomy Act. This normally involves monitoring medical schools, which use human corpses or cadavers to teach students.

In this case, the inspector Dr Jeremy Metters has ruled that the planned public autopsy breeches the Act.

He has told Professor von Hagens that he does not have a licence to carry out the autopsy.

He has also said that the premises - in this case the gallery - also need to be licensed before the autopsy can go ahead.

It is understand that he has informed the police of his decision and the Department of Health has indicated that it expects them to step in to prevent the autopsy.

If that happens Professor von Hagens faces being arrested.

What is Professor von Hagens saying?

Professor von Hagens insists that the public autopsy will still go ahead. He denies that he is breaking the law and says the public autopsy is not covered by the Anatomy Act.

He also denies that he needs a licence to carry out the procedure.

He believes carrying out the autopsy in public will help people to understand the procedure.

What happens next?

The inspector of anatomy and the Department of Health have indicated that they expect the police to step in to stop the public autopsy from going ahead.

Professor von Hagens is so far saying the procedure will go ahead as planned.

The Metropolitan Police have indicated that they will only act if they believe Professor von Hagens has already broken the law.

A spokesman told BBC News Online: "Any complaint or evidence received relating to criminal activity will be looked at and the appropriate action taken."

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