QUESTION: Can autopsy be performed for the sake of future
medical knowledge? A man who is terminally ill with Alzheimer's Disease wishes to have an autopsy performed and would like a portion of his brain to be used for medical research. (Rabbi H. Waintrup, Abington, PA)
ANSWER: There are three different issues involved in
the matter of autopsy. We must ask whether an autopsy is objectionable to Judaism. Is it permissible to disfigure the dead? Finally, is it necessary to bury portions removed from a corpse? We will assume that the individual has given his consent for an autopsy and wishes his brain tissues to be used for research.
The entire matter of autopsy was discussed in
detail in a lengthy responsum by Jacob Lauterbach decades ago. He came to the conclusion that neither the Talmud nor the later rabbinic literature including the eighteenth century Ezekiel Landau or the nineteenth century Moses Sofer prohibited autopsy. The latter felt that it is permissible if it benefits an ill person in the same place. The classical literature explicitly and implicitly permitted autopsy as demonstrated by Jewish physicians from Talmudic times onward who possessed considerable anatomical knowledge (W. Jacob, American Reform Responsa,#82).
In the last century and in modern Israel objections to autopsy
have arisen on the grounds of disfiguring the dead which is considered dishonorable; it may not be permitted even for the benefit of the living (Jacob Ettlinger, Binyan Tzion, #170, 171). This authority, however, also agreed that it is permissible if the individual consented to an autopsy as a person may reject any honor due to him. On the other hand other authorities felt that an individual had no right to consent, as the human body belongs to God and is only lent to the individual for safekeeping (Moses Sofer, Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah #336; Maharam Schick, Yoreh Deah #347). Contemporary Orthodoxy follows this stricter line of reasoning. We, however, do not and feel that the individual may permit an autopsy if he wishes.
There is a general stipulation that all portions of a body be buried, yet this is
minhag rather than law (Ezekiel Landau, Noda Biyehuda II Yoreh Deah #209). Mosheh Feinstein disagreed and felt that every portion of a body must be buried (Igrot Mosheh, Yoreh Deah I, #231), while still others like Eliezer Waldenberg felt that burial was mandated only to prevent the possible defilement of a kohen (Tzitz Eliezer, #25, Chap. 8). We accept the more lenient view and feel no necessity to bury the organs which have been removed for study.
In our age of rapid medical progress and worldwide
communication, an autopsy anywhere may help someone else. We would also encourage the use of a portion of the body, in this case the brain, for the purpose of long range research which may help many others in a few years. Such a use would be as helpful as alleviating the immediate suffering of another person in a nearby community.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.