Families would gain religious right to prevent autopsies under bill
ST. PAUL -- Two American Indian families' efforts to prevent loved ones' bodies from undergoing autopsies earlier this year resulted in Minnesota legislation to require religious objections to be considered.
ST. PAUL - Two American Indian families’ efforts to prevent loved ones’ bodies from undergoing autopsies earlier this year resulted in Minnesota legislation to require religious objections to be considered.
The bill by Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, specifically allows families to make religious objections to autopsies, although judges still could order them to be performed in the least intrusive manner over those objections. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed it Friday, sending it to the Finance Committee.
The bill comes after two February incidents in Northeastern Minnesota in which a medical examiner did not want to release bodies to families even after court orders to do so.
“Because of these delays, the family was not allowed to mourn in its traditional ways,” said Tadd Johnson, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and attorney who helped get a court order to give one of the families the body of a loved one.
The families objected to autopsies, Johnson said, because their religion forbids desecration of the body such as would happen when it was being examined by a medical examiner. They also could not perform some ceremonies required to happen soon after death, he said.
Lourey’s bill would provide a method for a medical examiner to seek a court order to conduct an autopsy despite the family’s objection if there is “a compelling state interest.” If an autopsy were allowed, the senator added, it would need to be conducted “in the least invasive means.”
Johnson said that in case in which he was involved, the death of MushKoob Aubid, 65, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the medical examiner “did not even talk to the family.” The examiner did not want to release the body even after a court order to do so, Johnson added.
Eventually, the body was released without an autopsy.
“Three days later, the very same thing happened to a 24-year-old Fond du Lac woman,” Johnson said.
Both Aubid and Autumn Martineau died in Carlton County traffic accidents.
In both cases, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini, who also works for Carlton County, scheduled autopsies and later relented.
Uncini earlier this month said he plans to step down as medical examiner in St. Louis County.
“I think people have to learn more about us as a people,” Lee Staples, a Mille Lacs Band elder and spiritual adviser, said in February. “It’s our teachings, our traditions. It’s the way we were taught as a people to do.”
At the Friday Senate committee hearing, Dr. Andrew Baker said in 17 years as a medical examiner, he never has had an impasse with a family like those that happened two months ago after the Carlton County wrecks.
“I virtually have always been able to be able to find some middle ground with the family,” said Baker, whose office handles Hennepin, Dakota and Scott counties.
Brian Rusche of the Minnesota Joint Religious Legislative Council said that American Indian beliefs are not the only ones that could come into conflict with current law. He said that Hmong, Amish, Muslim and some orthodox Jews are among religions that object to invasive autopsies. He said the “fundamental right” to express religion is in danger under current law.
The Lourey bill, Rusche said, will “more than anything else, give families a platform to assert themselves.”
News Tribune reporter Tom Olsen contributed to this report.