Bioethicists Evaluate Medical Forensics
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 12:10
World Association for Medical Law President Thomas Noguchi and WAML Vice President Oren Asman evaluated the ethical issues that surround autopsies during a joint lecture Friday afternoon.
The talk was part of a series sponsored by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Bioethics Research Library and the GU Undergraduate Bioethics Society.
Noguchi and Asman both became involved in the subject of ethics in forensic medicine from different situations.
Noguchi, who had been the Los Angeles County chief medical examiner-coroner for many years, came across ethical issues in forensic medicine, including how much information to release to the public or family of the deceased, how long specimens should be stored, where to bury specimens and how to respect religious beliefs of the family and deceased.
Asman, now a law lecturer at Zefat Academic College in Israel, first became interested in the ethics of autopsies when he observed one at 16 years old. In law school, he took a bioethics course and was surprised to find that the subject was not studied more widely.
“Why have we neglected this field? Why do ethicists ignore it? Let’s start doing it now,” he said.
In investigating high-profile, unexpected death cases, such as that of Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Noguchi has come across ethical issues dealing with how much information discovered in an autopsy ought to be released to the public.
“When it comes to unexpected death, the investigative agency has a duty to inform the public, otherwise they will believe that we are hiding evidence,” Noguchi said. “People have a right to know, but they don’t need to know everything.”
Asman distinguished between information necessary for police work and information relevant to the family.
“The fact that you have the information means first and foremost that you use it for the purpose it was gotten for, namely the investigation,” he said. “The family may not need all of the information.”
Asman said that the coroner’s office prioritizes who gets what information on a case-by-case basis.
“[The] first priority is the authorities, second is the family and third is the privacy of the person,” Asman said. “The extent to which knowledge is shared should not be predetermined. The more it is a public figure, the more people need to know. If we are to share, however, we need to be very careful with what we share.”
Noguchi also addressed how long a specimen should be kept by the authorities. Because some religions believe that the souls of the dead are not able to rest until the entire body is buried, this is a sensitive question.
Both Noguchi and Asman stressed the importance of educating investigators involved in forensic medicine.
“Educational committees are very important,” agreed Asman. “It is a very important field that has not gotten enough attention. We need to approach the next generation of students.”
The audience interacted with the two speakers, laughing at their jokes and participating in a question-and-answer session.
“It’s an aspect of ethics that I hadn’t previously thought of. It was very interesting, and they did a really good job,” Rosa Cuppari (SFS ’17) said.