UK Jewish community expresses relief as High Court orders end to invasive autopsies

Jewish leaders expressed concern at the practice of post-death organ removal since, according to Jewish law, it is "regarded as the desecration of a body.”

Orthodox Jews walk along Whitehall in central London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Orthodox Jews walk along Whitehall in central London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Communal leaders led by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis have given a broad welcome to last week’s High Court ruling that people who have a faith-based objection to invasive autopsies can request CT scans be used to determine the cause of death instead.
Both Jews and Muslims are affected by the ruling made by Justice John Mitting who accused the North London senior coroner, Mary Hassell, who was represented by Israeli lawyer Trevor Asserson, of a “flawed” decision. Last September she ordered an autopsy of an Orthodox 86-year- old Golders Green woman who died shortly after being admitted to the nearby northwest London’s Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
As doctors were uncertain whether she had died due to a heart attack or a septic shock, Hassell ordered an invasive autopsy, but as the judge observed, the woman would have been “mortified” at the thought that she would have been subjected to such a procedure.
It emerged during the hearing that her family had offered to pay for a CT scan in an attempt to avoid an autopsy. The woman’s family took the matter to court challenging the autopsy order and later obtained an emergency injunction which subsequently led to permission being given for a judicial review on whether a coroner can insist on an autopsy if the family makes clear it wants a noninvasive scan instead.
The scan was subsequently carried out by Prof. Ian Roberts of the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and he later stated that it was 90 percent probable that the Golders Green woman had suffered from heart failure. Hassell maintained, however, that the scan might not have shown whether an infection had been the real cause of death.
London Beth Din head Dayan Menachem Gelley explained in a written deposition that according to Jewish law, “cutting open a body and removing internal organs is regarded as the desecration of a body.”
Hassell told the court that at the time of the Jewish woman’s death she was swamped with work and handling around 20 deaths a day and that she wanted to determine why the Golders Green woman had died.
But Mitting maintained that while it was “unreasonable to expect perfection in decision-making in these circumstances,” Hassell had erred in her demand, which he said was “flawed” and “open to being quashed on judicial review grounds.”
He said that a noninvasive procedure should be considered when the family requested it on religious grounds, if there were a “reasonable possibility” that it could establish the cause of death; if there were “no good reason” to order an invasive autopsy; and if it would not impair the findings of an invasive autopsy should that subsequently prove necessary.
Hassell had opposed the hearing because she was adamant that its findings were academic. Another judge made clear, however, that the case raised questions of principle that were likely to arise in other cases.
Mitting ordered the coroner to pay 90 percent of the costs of the case to the Golders Green woman’s family.
Mirvis said it was a very significant development “which will give heart to numerous Jews and Muslims for whom the fastest possible burial of a loved one, not subject to an invasive autopsy, is of great importance.”
He added that it was a victory “both for common sense and for religious freedom, and I would like to place on record my appreciation for all the efforts of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society and other communal bodies who worked so hard on this.”
Rabbi Asher Gratt, spokesman for the strictly Orthodox Adath Yisroel Burial Society, said: “People in our community who until now have been living in fear can as a result of this landmark ruling breathe a sigh of relief. Justice has prevailed.”