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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 08:38 GMT
Should autopsy doctor be prosecuted?
A German professor has carried out a public autopsy as part of a controversial art exhibition in London - despite being threatened with arrest.

Professor Gunther von Hagens - who has gained notoriety from his exhibition of preserved corpses Bodyworlds - performed the post-mortem on the body of a 72-year-old German man in front of a live audience and under police scrutiny.

Up to 500 people paid £12 each to watch the event and for those who couldn't get hold of a ticket, Channel 4 televised the autopsy on Wednesday night.

HM inspector of anatomy sent von Hagens a written warning that the procedure would be "a criminal offence under the Anatomy Act" as neither he nor the venue had post-mortem examination licences, but he said he would rather face jail than cancel the autopsy.

Would you like to see the professor prosecuted? Should the public post-mortem have been allowed? Would you pay to see it? Did you go?


This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Who cares if he made money or is a 'publicity seeking nutcase'. Quite simply this guy is giving the general public chance to get to know our insides a little better! It's about time the general public had access to more real science. We are subjected to much less fascinating 'art' and entertainment everyday. If your not interested don't watch it, and stop moaning! There are much more sick things on TV and in the press than looking at the human body - after all, we all have one.
Lou, UK


He was clearly told this was illegal, but continued with it regardless.

Chris, UK
Of course he should be prosecuted - he was clearly told this was illegal, but continued with it regardless. The greater tragedy here is that Channel 4 were allowed to show this disgusting circus. The Broadcasting Standards Commission is a weak body who cannot or will not step in until the damage is done, and the Channel 4 executives have clearly thrown away any notion of taste and decency in a ghoulish attempt to boost ratings.
Chris, UK

I suppose something could be said about treating a corpse with dignity, but if the deceased has given permission, then what is the problem? On the other hand, while I probably wouldn't be interested in viewing a post-mortem, I do watch medical programs showing surgical procedures and I don't really see much difference. It's about choice isn't it? I think such a program is considerably less damaging to the psyche than the porn and foul language our families are constantly bombarded with on a daily basis via movies and the telly.
Di Stewart, USA

In my opinion it was unethical. Autopsy is an invaluable medical procedure and can not be performed as a circus show. The doctor must demonstrate respect for the patient, even for the deceased ones.
Sebastiao, Brazil

Prosecuted for what? The event was certainly tasteless and carried out by an attention-seeking individual, but in a country that calls itself a Democracy and advocate of free speech, I would defend his right to do it. In any case, the BBC itself, some while ago, screened a highly informative, very moving, and unforgettable documentary on the post mortem of a child, for which it was suitably applauded. Post mortems are an everyday occurrence and it is healthy for us all to know what goes on. The fear caused by ignorance can only be defeated by knowledge.
Klaus Bogstad, UK


I am glad that he is prepared to challenge taboos in order to make medical information more accessible

Jennie Kermode, Scotland
As I am a disabled person, it is very interesting and useful to me to be able to compare my anatomy to other people's. I found the bodyworks exhibits in Glasgow most enlightening, and thought similarly of what I saw on television of von Hagens' autopsy, though I would have preferred to see more detail. I am glad that he is prepared to challenge taboos in order to make medical information more accessible to those of us who have to live with difficult medical conditions every day of our lives.
Jennie Kermode, Scotland

I am currently studying anatomy and physiology and went to see the Bodyworlds exhibition as a way of extending my knowledge of human anatomy. It was a fascinating experience, and in fact I would like to go again as I don't feel that I nearly enough time to examine the exhibits/bodies on display and really investigate the wonders of the human body. I have no objection to Professor Von Hagens doing a post-mortem - in fact, if I had been aware of it sooner I would have been there myself. I am neither ghoulish nor "weird", I merely wish to understand the workings of our marvellous bodies better than I currently do. This does not make me a freak, nor does it make Professor Von Hagens one.
Alex, UK

A corpse is a corpse. It is not a person. I would imagine that most of those who disagree with the doctor¿s exhibition were more than willing to see Egyptian mummies or other bodies taken from their places of rest at archaeological sites in the name of culture and social interest.
John Montesinos, Spain

Why should such an event be a criminal act? Doctors perform this kind of act daily. Surely the public have a right to see & know what happens, either by attending such events or viewing them on TV. Clearly if the public want knowledge of this kind of thing they should be allowed access. Those who wish to be sheltered from death and workings of the human body should refrain from viewing.
John, UK


I would watch it again without hesitation

Mark Ashall, England
Being interested in Forensics, I was completely glued to my tv screen last night. I only wish it had been called The Post-Mortem, rather than using the Americanism "Autopsy". I found the programme to be highly educational and very interesting, as it lifted the lid on one of the lesser well known areas of modern anatomical science. I would watch it again without hesitation.
Mark Ashall, England

Yes -- he should be prosecuted. If he had treated the autopsy more like an actual medical procedure and less like a circus I would feel that he was in the right. But, his actions show that he did this for notoriety and profit. What a nasty man.
Shawna Lanne, USA

I woke up this morning only to see a picture of the first incision on the news. The police exist to perform a service, and by opting not to do their job on time they have failed society, evidently because it would have looked ugly on TV. Ugly, but not nearly as ugly as what their inaction caused me to see over breakfast. The question at the root of all this is whether the human body is at all sacred. Those who believe it is are uncomfortable with this sort of pornographic exercise.
Eric, Yugoslavia

A fuss over nothing. I thought it was very interesting and thought provoking. Everyone concerned gave their consent, even the corpse! Don't the police and authorities have anything better to do with their time?
Jeremy Rawlings, England


This has nothing to do with art.

Ian Scrivens, UK
As with most things there is a right time and a place for such an act. This has nothing to do with art. Let it be carried out on licensed premises and have the results available for viewing after.
Ian Scrivens, UK

If the Doctor had the consent of the person being autopsied and family member I don't see anything wrong with it. We see people being cut up on TV and movies all the time. If he didn't have consent then that is a huge violation to the right and disrespectful of the "victim".
Lucy Zou, USA/China

This was a tasteless display by a self confessed publicity seeker. Those who actually paid money to watch this public dissection should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Paul Chesterman, UK


Your opinion might be different if it had been a relative or friend

Andrea, UK
For the people who agree with this public act, perhaps your opinion might have been a different one if it had been a relative or friend of yours!
Andrea, UK

It would be grossly hypocritical to arrest and prosecute the professor only after the completion of the autopsy. Either arrest him the minute he started it, or not at all! The police should have the confidence to act on the spot if they view the autopsy as a crime, TV cameras or no. They had plenty of time to decide beforehand if a crime was about to be committed!
Michael Kilpatrick, Cambridge, UK

I'm not sure who to disbelieve most. The medical authorities for claiming this exhibition is disrespectful - when time and time again they fail to condemn "disrespectful" doctors either publicly or through discipline. Or Gunther von Hagens for claiming that this is educational - when it is clearly about making some cash. Perhaps if the protagonists were a little more honest then the public may be better informed. I don't believe the dead human body is sacred - nor do I wish to watch someone cut open for entertainment.
Terry Gallagher, UK

Post mortems happen everyday - people are right to ask what really happens. The argument that people could learn the same from text books doesn't really stand up: as everyone knows, theory is very different to practice. The professor should be commended for bringing routine practice into the public interest, controversial or not. As for art - the human body (even dissected) can be very beautiful. So why not class it as art?
Dave, Bristol, UK

What morbid entertainment society is starting to crave. If they can do this, how long will it be before contestants on reality TV shows are asked to perform an autopsy as part of a competition?
Alexander, US/UK

Is there anything that people are not willing to turn into entertainment?
Andrew, London, UK

I wonder who is more sick - the professor or the paying spectators.
Herman, Canada


I fear for adults that have gone through their lives without discovering the workings of the human body

Cheryl, UK
Channel 4 are opportunists who know there are enough warped people in society to up their viewing figures by televising such a programme. The argument in support of this event seems to be that of education. I listened, observed and learned in my biology lessons as a child. I fear for those adults that have gone through their lives without the curiosity to discover the workings of human muscles and organs until it is presented to them in such a contentious manner.
Cheryl, UK

I wish he would come to Australia. I would love to see his exhibition and also see his autopsy. Come on down under!
Ann, Australia

This guy actively seeks this sort of publicity. He just wants to become rich. He acknowledges, but I doubt he has much interest in, the educational value of his work. As for the people who consent to this kind of post-mortem treatment, some are paid up front, which makes them sort of prostitutes. I have nothing against all this, I just wonder why it's news at all.
Tom, USA

He should be prosecuted because it was against the law. Or the law should be changed.
Sam, UK

There is absolutely no reason for prosecution. The post mortem was handled matter of factly and was extremely interesting. The presence of medical professionals, the press and, indeed, the police surely legitimised this or are they all, along with the audience and the TV viewers to be prosecuted under an ancient law because, once again, the nanny state is trying to decide what is good for us?
Steve Evans, UK


I found it reassuring that I now know what happens in an autopsy

Si, UK
The medical fraternity commented that this cadaver was not treated respectfully during the autopsy: a bit rich coming from a profession well known for their pranks in university anatomy labs. I recall stories of people skipping with intestines, playing rugby with a lung and even in one case, stealing the cadaver and leaving him on the Tube. Last night's presentation on the other hand was sensitively handled, in a matter of fact style. There were no jokes and no attempt to frighten the squeamish. I found it reassuring that I now know what happens in an autopsy.
Si, UK

I watched it and as I have no medical background I thought it was very informative. If you watch Casualty they recreate wounds more horrific than this. On satellite TV you can watch operations so why should the professor be prosecuted? Is it because the medical ethics people want to shroud things like this in secrecy?
Rick, Scotland


He is just a modernised body snatcher

Jim, England
What can an autopsy teach the British public that a scientist hasn't recognised? The artist is not doing it for any ethical reason, but for profit and to increase his fame. He is just a modernised body snatcher.
Jim, England

To Jim, England: Re your comments about body snatchers - due to the strong religious principles of the time, people were horrified at the thought of not having a proper burial, thus, no bodies were available for research. Body snatchers stole bodies from graves (usually that of young criminals) in order to help them with their medical studies, not for profit or fame. I can see nothing wrong with what he is doing, and if you don't want to see it, don't go. End of story.
Amanda, England

The reaction to Professor von Hagens' attempt to perform dissection on a human body shows how closed-minded certain people in the UK can be. Dissection in medical laboratories has provided us and will continue to provide us with a wealth of knowledge about the human body and about disease. This represents the best opportunity for many people outside the medical profession to discover more about their inner workings. Such curiosity should be fostered among the general population.
Nick Gould, Scotland

Generally speaking I am not for autopsies being performed in public. They need to be carried out in a controlled environment - the human body even when dead can be very dangerous. How can the organisers of such events guarantee that no virus or disease will be spread? I have no objections to a organisation such as the BBC following the work of those who perform autopsies over a period of six months to a year and then presenting their findings to the public in a series of educational programs after the 9pm watershed.
Michael Dupree, UK

From an educational point of view I would love to see this, it would be fascinating. Arresting someone for an event of this type, which is consensual from all sides, is ludicrous and should it happen would be a waste of police resources.
Ron, UK


Is it not just the modern equivalent of putting ancient mummified bodies on display?

Angus, UK
Is it not just the modern equivalent of putting ancient mummified bodies on display? Only this time, the subjects have consented to be displayed
Angus, UK

When are we going to start with the Roman Circus too?
Moris Lopez, US

If it's a serious educational event then I think it's a good thing, and I resent the government trying to stop it. Most of us don't know as much as we should about the workings of our bodies and more knowledge might encourage us to take responsibility and look after ourselves properly. I'm rather dubious about the involvement of television, however, as commercial pressure could encourage entertainment not education.
Malcolm, UK


People like Von Hagens are playing on the dark recesses of our curiosity

Ashley Amos, Exeter, UK
When I was editing the student newspaper at university, we covered a visit by Prof. Von Hagens' Bodyworlds exhibition to campus. It was judged a rather macabre indulgence by the majority of students who had a look around. Despite that however, few could walk past the exhibition without taking a closer look. People like Prof. Von Hagens are playing on the dark recesses of our curiosity.
Ashley Amos, Exeter, UK

I went to the show with a small group for my A-level art course. I thought that the exhibition was mainly scientific because it helped to explain how the body works. If I had been taking art 20 years ago I would have had the option of attending an autopsy to aid figure drawing, (my teacher attended one). We were encouraged to sketch his compositions when we visited, and it has been very helpful to understand where muscles are.
Hazel, England


The human body is fascinating

Sarah North, UK
Of course it should be allowed - people are interested and happy to pay. The human body is fascinating and we should all be more educated in its functions and damage which we can do to it. The medical profession are also frightened of this man obviously.
Sarah North, UK

What kind of people will turn up to see this freak show? Perhaps the police should let it go ahead and take the opportunity to DNA test the audience.
Andy, NL

What's the point, exactly? Aside from publicity that is. Surely this is the way TV is heading anyway isn't it? Autopsy Academy is just round the corner...
Jeremy, UK


It's just another way to cater to people's need for gore

Kelly Armer, Yorkshire, England
I suppose it would be a good way for the NHS to raise much needed funds, they could charge people for watching operations with a pay scale depending on how gory it will be. Then of course more funds could be raised if they're made accessible to the internet. Sound stupid? So is this, just another way to cater to people's need for gore.
Kelly Armer, Yorkshire, England

Well why not? As long as the people directly involved have given their consent, it frankly has nothing to with anyone else. If people disagree with such 'art' then that's fine, but it's no reason to stop the exploration of a human body and the human psyche. Whether some people think it's macabre or not is by the by - you don't have to watch do you?
David Winters, UK

If this were more common then perhaps it would stop the rubbernecking that always follows a serious auto accident. Face it, people are curious about these sorts of things and why shouldn't they be?
Thelonious, UK


The taboo is there for a reason and, if removed, it could lead to all kinds of problems for society

Gary, UK
I believe this is just a modern-day freak show. It can't be mere coincidence that the chosen location (the former Truman brewery) is on the exact spot where one of Jack the Ripper's victims was discovered. I worked for the fire brigade and it was well known then that there is a certain ghoulish type of individual who has a fascination for photos of dead bodies. Steps were taken to avoid photos that were taken as evidence from ever falling into those kind of hands. I don't think it's healthy to want to look at corpses. The taboo is there for a reason and, if removed, it could lead to all kinds of problems for society.
Gary, UK

Just a thought - are the TV crew going to be prosecuted as well? No TV coverage - no impact.
S Dibble, England

Anyone caring to witness the opening, evisceration, and examination of a dead human body has probably never seen such a procedure. This is best left to those in medicine - clinicians who have genuine reasons to attend such a spectacle. Extraordinary as it may be, but the general public should not want to be desensitised to the detached disembowelment of one of their own. On the other hand, there will always be those who can't look away.
Chris, USA


I would be most interested to see it, and I don't consider myself odd

Jackie, UK
I would be most interested to view such a procedure, and don't consider myself odd. The human body is a masterpiece, and seeing the wonders first hand would be good. I wish I could have a ticket! It seems the law in this situation is not helpful.
Jackie, UK

There has long been a festering distaste of the very bodies that humans dwell in. Most people spend time and money working to alter their bodies. While I would find such a public exploration of the human body unsavoury, I cannot hide my own intrigue in our internal nature, and also the social response to its collective examination.
John, England

I think what I object to about this public autopsy is that it is being held only as public performance. If cameras were to film an autopsy in a hospital then I would be fascinated.
Jenny, UK


Nothing more than a macabre freak show

Russell Black, Leeds, UK
No, as it is nothing more than a macabre freak show for profit. If it was for medical research then this would be an entirely different matter.
Russell Black, Leeds, UK

If it's illegal the police should stop it. If it's not it ought to be. Let's draw some boundaries in our civilised society. If it's important that the general public know what an autopsy is like then we can set up some kind of watchdog including non-medical people and waste more taxpayers' money. I can hardly think that this public autopsy is going to add much to public understanding. Why don't they just admit it's a publicity stunt to make money?
Alan Harrison, UK

Why not? This country is still run on a lot of laws from the 1800s so let's at last bring ourselves in line Europe and the 21st century.
Andy, UK

No one is being forced to watch it, so what is the problem? I suppose what would make it less controversial is if the subject had given his permission for the event to take place. Personally I wouldn't go to it or indeed pay to see it - I would rather not know how my body will be treated when I finally fall off the perch!
F Harris, Scotland


There's nothing wrong with being curious about the human body

Derek Graham, UK
I think that we should have the right to see public autopsies. It is our decision to watch them, it is not being forced upon us. There's nothing wrong with being curious about the human body and wanting to know more about it.
Derek Graham, UK

It's all about freedom. The person freely gave their body to Dr von Hagens to use and those people who choose to watch it are doing so freely. No one is being hurt here, no one is being forced to do anything, and a lot of people may learn things about their own bodies that they didn't already know. I think it's fascinating and a great idea and will definitely be watching it.
Steve, England

It's the equivalent of a Victorian freak show. Except the freaks are the people who want to visit, not to mention the donors. What sad frustrated lives these people must lead.
Jim Millington, UK

Why are people who are curious about the human body labelled as "freaks"? Must I attend a university and pay exorbitant tuition fees simply because I want to see the inside of a human body? hose who propose that onlookers be "DNA tested" or arrested are being incredibly close-minded (as well as frighteningly Orwellian).
Dave, USA


Those who watch it are as guilty as he is

Ben Christie, UK
As soon as he reveals the dead body, he should be arrested. The guy is obviously a brilliant self-publicist, but this time there is no justification for his plan. This isn't art. This isn't science. It is an obscenity and those who watch it are as guilty as he is.
Ben Christie, UK

I think it should be allowed so long as the family of the donor has given consent. The government are constantly trying to control UK residents by telling us what we can and can't do and they have no right to tell us whether we can or can't see a body being dissected. People will only attend if they wish to see the autopsy so what's the problem?
Sarah Whitehouse, UK

I was one of the first to see the Bodyworlds exhibition in London and actually met Professor von Hagens. He is a very intelligent and personable guy. I tried to get tickets for the post-mortem but they had sold out. I'm totally for it, the deceased gave their permission, so what's the problem? No one is forcing anybody else to attend.
Alan Cousins, Brighton, England


It's a mess from start to finish and the body hasn't even been cut open yet

Richard, Leeds, UK
There doesn't appear to be much in the way of a public interest here. Everyone involved is a consenting adult - and that includes the dead body. Dissenters are referring to a law that shows no respect to the notion that adults can consent to be dissected. The £12 only covers a fraction of the costs of holding such an event so why not make it free? It's a mess from start to finish on both sides and the body hasn't even been cut open yet!
Richard, Leeds, UK

I took my children, aged 10 and 13, to see Bodyworlds in the summer, and we found the whole experience both interesting and thought provoking. My younger son talked so much about it afterwards that his school recently organised a visit to the exhibition. The work of Gunther von Hagens is challenging, and to some it is distasteful. That, however, should not stop him from doing what he does. Assuming that he has the relevant permission to use the body in this way, and that he conducts the autopsy professionally and without gratuitous sensationalism, I would support him in this endeavour.
John, England


Anybody who pays to go and see this may be a little odd

Hannah, UK
In my opinion, anybody who wants to pay to go and see a dead body being cut open and prodded around inside, may be a little odd. I do not think this guy should be allowed to do this, if he is not licensed under the Anatomy Act then he should most certainly not be allowed to do it.
Hannah, UK

If you ask me he is just a publicity seeking nutcase - and places like this are giving him all the glory he wants.
Ed, UK

Like the Turner Prize, this has more to do with publicity than art. Ignore it and it will go away.
Bryan, UK


Talking PointFORUM
Body part show
Prof Von Hagens answers your questions
 VOTE RESULTS
Should autopsy doctor be prosecuted?

Yes
 36.22% 

No
 63.78% 

5908 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

20 Nov 02 | Health
20 Nov 02 | Health
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