Frum Activists Seek Religious Autopsy Accommodation Policies at International Gathering of Medical Examiners


autopsyFor the last 44 years, the National Association of Medical Examiners (N.A.M.E.) has held an annual multi-day conference, gathering the medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, medicolegal experts, and other

 professionals in the field of forensic medicine from around the world. The conference’s agenda includes informative seminars focusing on the many intricate aspects of their field, and workshops displaying many of the new techniques made available by technological advances and scientific research. However, at the N.A.M.E. Conference that took place this week in Cleveland, an afternoon session focusing on avoiding autopsies out of respect for religious concerns — took most of the 400 participants by surprise.

Agudath Israel’s presentation, “The Medical Examiner and the Religious Community”, marked the first time a presentation of this nature took place at the N.A.M.E. Conference.

The presentation was an outgrowth of the continued outreach efforts to state and local medical examiner/coroner’s offices of Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, Agudath Israel of America’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, and its Ohio regional director, Rabbi A.D. Motzen. Over the last number of years, Agudath Israel of America has coordinated presentations and meetings with dozens of coroners, medical examiners, and their staffs in numerous states.

Rabbi Sadwin began the session by highlighting the graciousness of conference chairman and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland, OH area) Coroner, Dr. Frank Miller, for fitting the monumental presentation into the tight conference schedule. He also acknowledged the relationship that the Cleveland Orthodox Jewish community has enjoyed with Dr. Miller during his tenure.

Rabbi Sadwin proceeded by sharing details with the assembled of his ongoing work as liaison to the Maryland Medical Examiners office and his extensive interactions with its chief medical examiner, Dr. David Fowler. He spoke of the mutually accepted procedural protocol that was implemented to deal with all medical examiner’s cases involving Jewish decedents and how this laid the groundwork for similar relationships in the other Mid-Atlantic states. Rabbi Sadwin encouraged the assembled to adopt similar procedures in their respective areas and jurisdictions to effectively and appropriately deal with these matters if and when they arise.

Rabbi Sadwin then introduced Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens’ and the president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. Rabbi Zohn provided a comprehensive explanation of the religious needs of Jewish decedents and their families as well as the background behind them. He then outlined the widely-used protocol he developed on how to minimize the invasiveness of an autopsy when it is unavoidable.

A booklet of relevant material compiled by Rabbis Motzen and Sadwin was distributed to the assembled. It included a guide to religious protection clauses for autopsy laws and a copy of the procedural protocol developed for the Maryland State Autopsy Manual by Rabbi Sadwin.

Rabbi Motzen commented, “Many of the participants approached me after the session for additional copies of the booklets to distribute to the respective staff. The repeated refrain that I heard was ‘thank you – it’s important that all of my colleagues back home are exposed to this information as well’ and that was very encouraging.”

Dr. Fowler commented, “Medical Examiners and leaders of all faiths are striving to protect the community. When trusting relationships are developed based on open discussion, it allows us to recognize the important role everyone plays in the welfare of the community, and all are well served. While this calls for compromise on all sides, it provides us with a communal strength that is the foundation of a great Nation.”

Rabbi Sadwin commented, “We hope that this initiative will lead to heightened sensitivity in the area of kovod hamess – dignity of the deceased, especially in areas of the country that it would otherwise be unheard of.”

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