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Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Corpse Wars: Coroners Versus Organ Harvesters

     Pennsylvania legislators are considering passing a law (House Bill 30) aimed at increasing the number of organ donors in the state. It's a nice goal, but there are problems and complications with this bill.

     Presently, in cases of violent or unexpected death such as traffic accidents, drownings, drug overdoses, sudden infant death cases, suicides, obvious homicides, and deaths involving infectious diseases that could threaten the community, the state's coroners and medical examiners have first claim on the corpses.

     As things stand now, when the body in question is that of an organ donor, organ procurement organizations can claim the remains after the autopsy. HB 30 would reverse that order, giving the organ procurement people first crack at organ donors' bodies.

     Under the proposed legislation (there is a similar bill working its way through the state senate), a coroner or medical examiner who needs the body, can object in writing to the harvesting of organs prior to the autopsy. But pursuant to HB 30, organ procurement officials would not have to honor the request. In cases of violent, unexpected and suspicious death, forensic pathologists and coroners could attend and view the organ harvest procedures. Moreover, the procurement organization would supply coroners and medical examiner offices with photographs of the body, blood samples, and biopsies.

     According to the chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, photographs and blood samples would be useless in the process of determining cause and manner of death. Also, organ harvesters have no training in forensic pathology and are not required to be surgeons or even medical doctors.

     Opponents of HB 30 say that autopsy results acquired after the organ harvest procedure could not be used at trial as cause and manner of death evidence against a murder defendant. Organ harvesters could, for example, leave hemorrhages in the neck as well as laryngeal fractures that would mimic strangulation. Forceps used in organ removal could inflict wounds that could be mistaken for signs of homicidal trauma.

     According to Dr. Cyril Wecht, the renowned Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist, a defense attorney could destroy a murder prosecution's case based upon the unreliable results of an autopsy performed after the corpse had been subjected to organ harvesting.

     Even before the introduction of HB 30 and its senate counterpart, the state's coroners and medical examiners have been at war with the organ harvesters. Coroners claim that representatives of organ procurement groups have called them at all hours of the night to harass them into giving up the bodies quickly for organ harvesting.

     Opponents of the proposed bills also point out there is nothing in the legislation that prevents a suspect in a homicide case who is also "next of kin" as defined by the bill, from donating the victim's organs in an effort to discredit a subsequent autopsy.

     Under the proposed legislation, organ procurement officials can void living wills in order to keep the donor alive simply to maintain the health of the organs until they can be harvested and sold. (It is against the law for individuals to sell their organs, but organ procurement organizations are allowed to market the body parts. A single body can bring as much as $3 million. Beyond saving lives, big money is involved in the organ harvesting business. The bills will probably pass because in politics money talks and forensic science walks.) 

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