Sunday, January 27, 2008

do you sing the body electric?

A case going before the Ohio Supreme Court this week has the potential to change autopsies in the state - but also, potentially, surgeries and other procedures. At the heart of the matter is whether or not the state has the right to classify removed portions of the body as medical waste, and dispose of them in a timely fashion, or if those items of the body must eventually be returned to the family/loved ones. The specific plaintiff in this case is the family of a man who was buried without his brain.

The reason for this isn't as gruesome, nor as forensic show plot-y as it sounds. It's actually rather simple; when preparing a brain, during an autopsy, it typically takes longer to prepare the brain for viewing than it does to release the rest of the body for burial/cremation. Once the examination of the brain is done, and final cause of death has been determined, the brain is disposed of like most other medical waste - incineration.

But it raises a host of ethical, legal and social issues. Many people, backed by many different religions, believe that the body must be returned to the ground whole, for various reasons involving religious tenants and the afterlife/Resurrection. Others, perhaps fueled by media reports of wrongdoing on the part of funeral directors and the like, simply fear what is happening to those body parts - are they being used for research without permission? Unauthorized grafts or transplants? They want accountability for the whole of their loved one's body, and feel that it is well within our cultural history to demand it.

The defendants argue that this will severely harm their practice, of forensics and crime scenes, of autopsies, and perhaps more. After all, they point out, when a body dies, fluids - blood and more - are lost at the scene, and this is not collected for return. Likewise, there are times when the entire body simply cannot be returned, due to the natural of the death itself. Or most simply, as attorney Mark Landes has pointed out, it is a definitional impossibility to both do an autopsy and return the entire body.

Unfortunately, this is a situation of cultural and social beliefs hitting up against practical considerations and laws - we need to know how people died, particularly when it is a suspicious death, but we want to respect the religious and cultural beliefs of the people involved. And there are times when the two simply cannot be reconciled - and in those cases, what do you do?

I know what my decision would be - what's yours?
-Kelly

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