Ohio High Court Debates Family's Rights to Body Parts After Son's Brain Removed in Autopsy

Ohio's top state court heard arguments over whether the brain, heart and other body parts removed during an autopsy should be returned to the relatives of the deceased instead of being destroyed as medical waste.

The parents of Christopher Albrecht say they had the right to bury their son with his brain intact instead of it being permanently removed at his autopsy. Their lawsuit against coroners and commissioners in 87 of this Midwestern state's 88 counties raises ethical, moral and religious questions about the treatment of bodies after death.

The case has drawn international attention for its ramifications to coroners, crime investigators, emergency medical technicians, funeral directors and followers of religions that espouse the importance of burying the whole body.

Under Ohio law, brains, hearts and other body parts and fluids removed during an autopsy are classified as medical waste, which generally means they are incinerated after use.

During oral arguments Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical of both sides -- with Justice Paul Pfeifer at one point calling "totally lame" a lawyer's argument that coroners would be reticent to do thorough autopsies if property rights were involved.

"Plaintiffs would have you believe that you can do an autopsy and still return all of the body," replied defense attorney Mark Landes. "That's a definitional impossibility."

Ruling for the family would conflict with a bill passed by lawmakers in 2006 clarifying that coroners have the right to retain and destroy specimens taken during autopsies, Landes said.

"That genie is out of the bottle after today," he said.

Justice Maureen O'Connor, a former county prosecutor, suggested to attorneys for the family that allowing their legal argument to prevail would have a sweeping impact on the entire medical profession.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton asked John Metz, an attorney for the family, to cite the Constitution to bolster his legal argument, asking where guarantees of liberty or property fit into the case.

"I hope there's never a government that tells me that I don't have an interest in my dead daughter's body," he replied.

Defenders of the coroners, including the Ohio State Coroners Association, Ohio State Medical Association and the National Association of Medical Examiners, contend that establishing property rights for families to the organs, tissue, blood and other fluids extracted during an autopsy could jeopardize timely autopsies and jeopardize criminal evidence.

Brains are particularly difficult to reunite with a body in time for burial, because it takes three to 14 days to prepare them for examination.

Metz and co-counsel Patrick Perotti have been taken to task before the court for making a legal question too emotional. Perotti's briefs have contained references to Achilles' slaying of Hector in "The Iliad," the drowning of Shakespeare's Ophelia and poet Walt Whitman's "I Sing The Body Electric."

Lawyers for the coroners at one point tried and failed to get one particularly verbose submission -- which traced the history of death from ancient to modern times -- stricken from the record.

In a brief, the Medical Examiners Association said material from a dead body is almost always lost. Bodies lose fluids at accident scenes and parts of some bodies are never found, the group said.

It argued that material taken by coroners is being singled out unfairly in this case.

Christopher Albrecht, 30, died in December 2001 when he suddenly plunged his vehicle into a pond. The coroner determined that an epileptic seizure prompted his accident, but that his death was caused by drowning.

According to the autopsy, a portion of his brain had been removed during his life as part of a surgical procedure related to his epilepsy.