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Cards Barring Autopsy if Bearer Dies Are Now Available Under a Unique N.Y. State Law

A wallet-sized card, stating that the bearer does not want nor does he or she authorize an autopsy on his or her body, under the first state law of its kind, has been prepared and is now being distributed by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Julius Berman, UOJCA president, reported today.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Lasher, Brooklyn Democrat, and State Sen. Martin Solomon, also a Brooklyn Democrat, was signed into law by Gov. Hugh Carey earlier this month. The law requires that the card be notarized.

New York State’s basic law mandates autopsies under three circumstances, Berman said. One is unexplained death, another is investigation on suspicion of homicide, and the third is investigation of a possible threat to the public health.

GREAT VALUE IN CERTAIN CASES

Berman said that the card will be of the greatest value in cases where next of kin do not come forward and request that an autopsy not be performed. He said that in New York State, and in other states, the courts have generally been receptive to claims of religious objections to autopsies — other than those involving unexplained death, suspicion of homicide or possible threat to the public health — and have refused to permit dissections simply for the purpose of determining the precise cause of death.

More specifically, Berman said, the courts have refused to permit an autopsy when a religious objection has been raised and the medical examiner offers no reason for the dissection other than to determine what damage to which particular organ caused the death.

Berman pointed out that Jewish religious law severely limits the occasions on which dissection of a body is proper, with improper dissection deemed a defilement of the body and a desecration of the honor of the deceased person.

BASIS FOR THE PROBLEM

The problem for Jews persists because there is no definitive ruling by the highest court of a state, including New York State, all such rulings to date being by lower courts. Medical examiners therefore feel free to ignore the lower court decisions and have done so.

Moreover, it was pointed out, involvement of courts comes about only through a lawsuit by next of kin to obtain a court order barring the autopsy. Since the instances in which this problem arises are by nature usually not predictable, recourse to the courts remains an inadequate solution.

Berman pointed out that in cases where a death occurs and the body is not claimed within 48 hours, medical examiners feel free to proceed with autopsies, even if there is no evidence of any of the three mandated requirements for autopsies.

TEXT OF CARD

The text of the card reads: “I do not consent to the dissection or autopsy of my body except as required by law. This declaration is intended only as notice pursuant to section 4209-a of the (New York State) Public Health Law. It is not intended as a waiver of any objections to an autopsy on my body based on religious or other grounds which may be asserted.” There is room for notarization on the card.

Berman cautioned that the law, while serving a positive function, “does not speak to the heart of our concern on autopsies, i.e., to clearly define circumstances, such as religious objections, where autopsies would be prohibited by law.”

He said the initial printing is 10,000 cards which will be available Sept. I. Limited quantities of 25 cards will be sent as a package to Orthodox synagogues and Hebrew day schools, accompanied by a form for ordering additional cards. Berman said that the Orthodox Union had undertaken to print and distribute the card because the law did not authorize funds for that purpose.

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