A CASE before the Ohio Supreme Court contesting the right to a dead person's body parts following an autopsy could easily be decided on emotion rather than reason, but that would be a mistake.
A Cincinnati-area couple who lost a son in a car accident brought a class-action lawsuit against Ohio's county coroners after learning - five years later - that he'd been buried without his brain.
After Christopher Albrecht, 30, drove his vehicle into a pond and died in December, 2001, Clermont County Coroner Mark Treon removed the man's brain during an autopsy and never replaced it. This, we are informed, is not an uncommon practice by coroners.
Now, Mr. Albrecht's parents, Mark and Diane Albrecht, are contending that the family had a right to their son's brain and should have been given a chance to recover it before it was destroyed.
The Albrechts' attorney has argued that the law exists merely "for the convenience of the government," and called it "a socialist view."
While we understand the emotions and, sometimes, religious sensibilities implicit in the passing of loved one, we believe that state law governing autopsies is well-justified and not unreasonable, given the public interest inherent in establishing the cause of death in criminal and civil matters. In addition, science and public health are ill-served without the systematic collection of medical information through autopsies.
Under the law, brains, hearts, and other body parts and fluids removed during an autopsy are classified as medical waste, which generally means they are incinerated after testing. The law also allows coroners to retain organs for necessary examination, and includes exceptions for religious strictures that may preclude autopsies.
The Albrechts initially sued Mr. Treon in federal court, claiming what they insist are property rights to body parts under the state and federal constitutions. The federal court sought clarification from the Ohio Supreme Court on what rights the Al-
brechts have under state law.
If the justices rule in the parents' favor, the ramifications could be substantial, including an onslaught of expensive legal action against coroners and other county officials. Grappling with the property-rights issue, moreover, could jeopardize both the completion of autopsies in a timely fashion and preservation of legal evidence.
Some tissue tests, especially on the brain, can take weeks. Who would want to wait that long for a body to be released for burial?
The reality, says the National Association of Medical Examiners, is that some part of a corpse is almost always lost, sometimes at an accident scene, and coroners should not be targeted because they may not be able to put every organ they examine back into the body.
Certainly the justices can sympathize with the emotional view of the plaintiffs, but they should not put coroners in the unmanageable position of having to negotiate with families about what to do with body parts.
Coroners should always treat the bodies they examine with the utmost respect, as well as inform families of the deceased about autopsy procedures whenever practicable, and we believe most do. But complicating their crucial work with new strictures on ownership of human remains doesn't stand the test of reason and is not good public policy.
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