Thursday, September 07, 2006

Halachic Autopsies?

This week's US News & World Report has an interesting article about how autopsy methods are changing. New "virtual autopsies" (similar to a CT scan) are being performed increasingly and are sometimes able to better identify the cause of death than traditional autopsies.

The article describes some of the practical benefits of virtual autopsies:

Virtual autopsy exploits the ability of a modern CT scanner to create images of a body, intact or battered, without physically invading it. (Sometimes other forms of scanning, such as magnetic resonance imaging, are combined with CT.) In as little as 10 minutes, data representing thin X-ray slices of the body are reconstructed by a powerful computer into crisp, detailed images of bone and tissue. Pathologists and radiologists can zero in on a fractured skull like the one above, deciphering the pattern to determine how the blow arrived and exactly how death occurred. Images can be sized up and down and turned at various angles, providing instant flexibility not afforded by conventional autopsy. Nor can a physical autopsy show the path of a bullet at a glance, as virtual autopsy can.

Furthermore, as this technology gains wider acceptence, traditional autopsies may be dispensed with altogether, as noted in the article:

In a decade or two, hands-on autopsies will be gone-replaced by the virtual version, says CFIV Director Michael Thali. At least in Europe, it is beginning to be integrated into the teaching curriculum. Sweden's CMIV has a 15-meter, high-resolution screen for that purpose. "We have stopped using ordinary autopsy as a training tool," says Persson, because the clear, precise images on the huge screen are far more instructive.

Of course, as we all know, halacha frowns (or perhaps outright forbids) autopsies - especially where not required by the civil authorities. However, I'm wondering if non-invasive autopsies, if handled quickly would be permitted? I suppose it might depend on how you define the term Kavod HaMes. One could take the interpretation that since the body is no longer being cut up, dissected and having its organs removed, the halachic obstacles have been bypassed.

Of course, if the procedure will cause a delay in burial, then we will once again run afoul of halachic constraints - that of requiring a quick burial. Since it is considered dishonorable for the corpse to remain unburied, having a non-invasive procedure that takes days of waiting in a morgue for a scanner is probably just as bad as an immediate invasive autopsy. But if the procedure could be performed immediately or shortly after death...?

Of course, I am not a Rav - this is all just off "the top of my head." I'm sure that there may be other halachic and medical issues involved as well. But it certainly is possible that these new advances could change the way that Judaism views autopsies... much the way that medical advances have changed the way that Judaism viewed heart transplants in the last forty years.

The Wolf

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Back in January there was rioting in many of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods here in Israel over the autopsy of a woman found dead in her apartment.,7340,L-3208714,00.html