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Breakfast with Frost
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Professor Gunther von Hagens
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Dr Michael Wilks, chairman, BMA ethics committee
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: PROFESSOR GUNTHER VON HAGENS & DR MICHAEL WILKS, BRITISH MEDICAL ASSOCATION NOVEMBER 24TH, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now, should the dissection of a human body, carried out in an art gallery, in front of a paying audience, be classed as education or entertainment or what? Last week, 450 people witnessed the first public autopsy in Britain since the 1830s and more than a million watched it on Channel 4. Professor Gunther von Hagens claimed he was staging the event in the name of democracy, to help people understand more about how the body works, and to confront the fear of death,. And it seems there is a demand for more knowledge of anatomy, more than half a million people have visited the professor's Body World exhibition, although the critics say that that too is ghoulish and degrading. Well Professor von Hagens joins me now and also with us in the studio is Dr Michael Wilks, we're delighted to welcome the Chairman of the BMA Ethics Committee. Doctor, what do you think people could have gained from that, attending, watching that public autopsy of the elderly gentleman this week.

PROF VON HAGENS: How the performance of an autopsy is done by a medical doctor, how important it is, not only for the students, but also for the physicians who treated the patient, and for the professionals to understand how important it is for the loved ones which have to give consent to understand what it is all about.

DAVID FROST: Did you get that from it - you were there weren't you?

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Yes, I was, yes. Well yes, I think it had limited educational value because we know what happens at an autopsy, although the autopsy was done on a preserved corpse and I think that sort of the realistic autopsy wasn't really seen. But I think it's educational value was relatively slight compared to the, the spectacle that we had to witness and I think that real education should be done in a way that isn't necessarily quite so, quite so sensational.

DAVID FROST: How many bodies do you have in reserve, at the moment, to do this with, or to put into your Body Worlds exhibition?

PROF VON HAGENS: Well ... would be ready for another public autopsy, 50 I have in my tanks for dissection to put on display in Body World exhibition. A total of 160 bodies I got so far from 5200 donors, every day I get two to five more from people who go to the exhibition and find it's just revealing.

DAVID FROST: Have you seen the exhibition as well

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Yes, I did, yes. I mean I think though, the autopsy was done in the context of the exhibition and there was some educational parts of the exhibition that were valuable but I think the display, if I may say, of the bodies, in a rather sensational and not very anatomically educational pose kind of gave the lie to it being a purely educational event. Having said that, I do think that we're all interested in our bodies and many of our patients want to know more about their bodies and so there is a need here, I think we're agreed about that. Maybe the context is what we disagree about, but there is a need somehow to find some way to educate people about their anatomy - but there are ways to do that, it doesn't have to be, you know, quite so entertaining.

DAVID FROST: Some people have - entertaining in inverted commas - some people have said that they found parts of the exhibition absolutely grotesque. Did you find things in that exhibition that was grotesque?

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Yeah, I thought that some of it was grotesque and also degrading and one of the things about medical ethics is we try to show, you know, a respect for the dignity of people, not just when they're alive but when they're dead, and I think to display corpses in ways that don't really offer really much educational value, arranged in ways that don't really kind of help us very much to understand about anatomy, is I think going far to far.

DAVID FROST: What about this point about the dignity of death and so on, I mean would that elderly man have really wanted to see himself exhibited in that way? It seems impossible.

PROF VON HAGENS: Absolutely. He wrote in his testament, he wrote his last will, any form of public enlightenment, I trust my body to you. And the son was behind me and the daughter-in-law was behind me and they called me and even the daughter-in-law showed up at, at television in Germany. So I have full, full consent with the relatives. I think this is all kind of ... to the ... of the death.

DAVID FROST: Yes.

PROF VON HAGENS: And when you refer to these grotesque poses, the public think very differently. There is independent surveys done in the exhibition in London and everywhere, 90 per cent are in favour or very much in favour. Only two per cent are against it. And in Japan I had a big problem because I put them in anatomic position and the complaint was they looked like they were staring at us. Ever since, I went to Italy, I've studied anatomies, how did they get a lifelike position and the people just like it.

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Well I think we're agreed about the need for education, I think we're ...

DAVID FROST: .... not in ... what form of education.

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Well no, and I think another fundamental principle of medical ethics is consent, an informed consent. And informed consent means that you're consenting to have things done to you in the context that you understand. And I think consent for education, yes, but consent to be displayed in a, in a rather sensational way on television with all the cameras and, and a paying audience - I don't see why the audience had to pay to see something that was educational - I think is not really the right sort of consent that we would have accept.

DAVID FROST: It says in the Sunday Times today that our of your exhibition you've made 45 million pounds.

PROF VON HAGENS: Yes, I made it but the expenses have been forgotten. I put up a research centre in China for five million pounds alone. So when you break even, all my value I will have, I will be bankrupt. You know. I have big bank loans and as for expenses ... 33 people paid because there was reduction in organisation costs and it, I had an expense of 20,000. But in the papers, you know, I made a fortune.

DAVID FROST: Now of course, I mean the doctor doesn't come within the BMA or whatever but if a member of the BMA was to do exactly what the doctor has done, namely a public autopsy with a paying audience, what would you say to him, would you suspend him?

DR MICHAEL WILKS: Well there's a question of whether this was within the law, because the premises weren't licensed for autopsy. I don't think the BMA would be a particular problem, it would be the General Council that I think would take a view about somebody, if who hadn't broken the law had come close to it, had charged people for what actually is a medical procedure, to see it. So I think the General Medical Council in this country would be taking a careful look at it, yes.

DAVID FROST: So don't base yourself in this country would be the ...

PROF VON HAGENS: ... I didn't break the law - two times, and this is what we expect of an MP, didn't read his law properly because they tried to shut down the exhibition in the first place and now ...

DR MICHAEL WILKS: The police, the police didn't intervene ... but I think they had some concern about the legality of it.

PROF VON HAGENS: ... because, because the British parliament would never have made a law against medical censorship to ...

DR MICHAEL WILKS: I don't think we won't to increase the sensationalist aspect of it ...

DAVID FROST: And the paying audiences and all of that. Well thank you both for airing those differing points of view, we appreciate it very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS

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