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Body shows and professional conduct rules

By Diane Karpman

Diane Karpman

There are several controversial traveling “cadaver shows” involving human bodies crisscrossing the nation. These shows are hugely popular, often with long lines. In these “body shows,” cadavers are dramatically displayed with their skin peeled back, revealing core organs, muscles and circulatory systems. Everything is on view. The bodies or body parts are “plastinated,” which is a special process for preserving organic material with silicon, making the bodies durable with a long shelf life.

I stayed at one show about five minutes and was uncomfortable (yuk). Yes, it’s for “science,” and it is “educational,” but it struck me as ghoulish entertainment. Yet the mummies at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo have been on display for decades without the choirs of objections directed at the body shows all over the United States.

Legislation is pending in Sacramento, sponsored by Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, to require that the body show entrepreneurs obtain consent and verification for the bodies on display. This demonstrates that lawyers aren’t the only profession that values informed consents.

Our Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310 (A) would provide a good paradigm for what a consent to this type of show should contain. Rule 3-310 (A)(1) says, “‘Disclosure’ means informing the client or former client of the relevant circumstances and of the actual and reasonably foreseeable adverse consequences to the client or former client.” Disclosure, therefore, requires anticipation of possible problems, analysis of contingencies and an explanation of the benefits and detriments.

California lawyers have been grappling with informed written consents for more than 30 years. Lawyers sometimes find drafting consents to be a daunting task, but remember you don’t have to tease out every possibility. Make a good faith effort to explore what could evolve, knowing that consents protect lawyers. Can you imagine drafting a consent to the exploitation of a body for eternity?

It is critical to remember that when facts and circumstances change, an additional consent should be obtained. A consent to a potential conflict is not a consent to an actual conflict (Rule 3-310, Official Discussion). Consents are empowering and allow consumers to fully participate in making informed choices. Wouldn’t you like to know when a physician prescribes a medication if that cold remedy is the best one for you, or if the physician’s recommendation is based upon some benefit he receives from the manufacturer? Sometimes lawyers are reluctant to ask doctors too many questions, and sometimes they might even wish that the physician did not know that they are lawyers.

There are a number of body shows traveling across the nation raking in big bucks. The shows exhibit healthy people engaged in different activities. There is a violinist, an archer and a torch carrier, but no lawyer. They probably don’t want lawyers (and nobody is volunteering). Lawyers are too much trouble and their families might be considered litigious. Or possibly lawyers, after fulfilling the billable hour requirements at their firms, at the end of the day are entitled to total rest.

• Legal ethics expert Diane Karpman can be reached at 310-887-3900 or at

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