November 30, 2005

Should Autopsy Photos Be Made Public

Yahoo! has an interesting story about autopsy photos. I want to share a couple sections with you.
"COLUMBUS, Ohio - Connie Ayres lost her 16-year-old daughter in a car crash in 1996. The next year she learned that a county morgue was using the autopsy photos in a slide show to help fight drunken driving.

Ayres' outrage helped lead to restrictions last year on the display of autopsy photos in Michigan — one of at least 10 states to enact laws in recent years to prohibit coroners from releasing pictures or other death records to the public.

The slides of Ayres' daughter were shown as part of court-ordered morgue tours for people convicted of drug- or alcohol-related offenses.

"I felt like the government has no right to use my daughter as an administrative tool, as a tool for punishment," the Michigan woman said."

This sounds like it could be a slamdunk, after all who would want to upset the survivors. Why would it be necessary to make the photos public.

But we need to stop and consider this for a moment.

What is the purpose of an autopsy. It really is a simple matter of determining the cause of death when it is not clear how someone died and if television is any guide it apparently is of great interest, just look at the shows that covered it: Quincy, CSI, Crossing Jordan etc.

In any case the article helps to provide an answer or two that are worth considering.

"Supporters of such restrictions say the release of autopsy records could compound family members' pain, and they worry particularly about the possibility of gruesome morgue photos being posted on the Internet or published.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are considering such restrictions.

"My concern is with the dignity and privacy and respect of the individual and the family left behind in a very unfortunate situation," said Dr. Lisa Kohler, medical examiner in the Akron area's Summit County.

Open-records advocates say that keeping the records available to the public is crucial to making sure that coroners, often elected officials supported with tax dollars, are doing their jobs right.

"The overall effect is to undermine public confidence in the conduct of the office because all of its work is conducted, without check, in private," said Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association."

and

"But state Rep. Scott Oelslager, a Republican and open-records advocate, said he sees no justification for the bill.

"We should be erring on the part of openness," he said. "People pay for the coroners and these notes, and we should make public records as open to the public as possible."

Charles Davis, a University of Missouri journalism professor and director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said that coroners can make mistakes and that releasing autopsy photos and other records could enable family members and the media to learn the truth."

There is merit to an open process and to transparency, the trick is trying to find the right balance.

2 comments:

jg said...

Maybe the records, including photos, should be archived somewhere and accessible only when necessary during an investigation. The recording, archiving, and availability would add to accountability, but they wouldn't be in the public domain. I know I would be beyond upset if I were in Connie Ayres position. :(

Jack's Shack said...

It is a terrible position to be in.