Coroners Bill favours scan over the knife

By Jonathan Kalmus, January 29, 2009
Full body scan: preferable under halachah

Full body scan: preferable under halachah

A dramatic fall in the number of invasive post-mortems carried out on Jewish people against their families’ wishes could be on the horizon, according to new legislation proposed in parliament this week.

In London, 80 per cent of around 150 post-mortems carried out annually on Jews still use invasive surgical procedures and remove body parts, in contravention of halachah (Jewish law). Currently, if the coroner orders a post-mortem, civil law will override religious law.

But the Coroners and Justice Bill, which had its second reading in the Commons on Monday, changes the definition of post-mortems to include MRI scanning, which can determine the cause of death without a blade touching the body.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Bridget Prentice, said that the Bill would ensure that coroners took the religious requirements of bereaved families into account: “There are probably far too many post-mortems carried out. I am keen that, where appropriate and possible, coroners can offer non-invasive post- mortems. If a coroner requests an MRI scan, then the Bill will allow them the opportunity to do that.”

This will be the first recognition given in English law to post-mortem scanning, and means coroners will have to recognise its validity .

This removes a major barrier to scanning, according to Simon Nelson, the coroner for Manchester North.

He said: “Some coroners will simply not accept that scanning is within the definition of a post-mortem, so it’s extremely useful to have the definition enshrined in this legislation.”

The option of scanning is already offered by all coroners across Greater Manchester, after more than a decade of work by Jewish campaigners. The result is a 98 per cent reduction in invasive post-mortems carried out on Jewish people, falling from 60 to 70 cases annually to less than one a year.

One leading campaigner, Shlomo Adler, says he has been waiting for scans to be recognised in English law for over 11 years.

“Scans should be used wherever possible, otherwise a body is torn to shreds — it’s terrible,” he said.

But solicitor Michael Levy, who wants scanning to be recognised as a religious right under the Human Rights Act, says the new Bill is very welcome but may not go far enough.

“I would like the Bill to say that coroners are obligated to offer a non-invasive post-mortem and to make it an explicit right to have one.

“At the moment this right is only implicit — it doesn’t say coroners need sufficient grounds before refusing a scan.”

Bolton Coroner Jennifer Leeming, a leading authority on implementing scanning, says the Bill is a “huge stride forward” and may be enough to convince all coroners to adopt scanning.

Last updated: 3:20pm, January 29 2009