Thursday 21 February 2019

Organs taken without consent from Irish who died abroad

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

MORE than one in three Irish citizens who died abroad had organs removed without the knowledge or consent of their families.

And many people believed to have died accidentally abroad may actually have been murdered because their cause of death has not been recorded properly, a report obtained by the Irish Independent reveals.

The report -- the first ever study of the causes of deaths of Irish nationals abroad -- reveals just one in five bodies had been autopsied in accordance with proper international guidelines.

It found that 40pc of bodies are returned to their families with incomplete autopsies. A further 40pc are sent home without any post-mortem examination.

More than half (55pc) of all deaths abroad had no cause of death established. And where a cause of death had been recorded in another country, one in three cases differed from the cause of death established by Irish pathologists who examined the bodies on return.

To compound families' grief, 35pc of bodies returned to Ireland had organs missing.

State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy last night warned this could have "serious legal implications".


In one case, the family of an Irish national who died in Prague were told their loved one died of swelling of the lungs. But an Irish post-mortem examination later revealed that the person had in fact been strangled.

Dr Cassidy has issued an unprecedented appeal for world-wide autopsy guidelines in the wake of the findings.

"When someone dies abroad, we have no control over what happens and often we just don't know what we are dealing with," Dr Cassidy told the Irish Independent.

"You either do a complete autopsy or you don't. Coroners in Ireland are now very active in ensuring that repatriated bodies are subject to a full examination, but we are concerned that some homicides may be slipping through the net because of flawed autopsies or none at all.

"While autopsy techniques may understandably vary in different countries, the time may have come to formulate one universal set of guidelines," she added. The state pathologist also called for global recommendations on the "highly sensitive and controversial" subject of organs removed from bodies without families' consent.

She advised that arrangements should be made with next-of-kin for the reuniting of retained organs before burial, or for appropriate disposal to be agreed.

All bodies that arrive in Dublin airport are now automatically sent to the state pathologist for examination. The investigation examined the causes of death of 20 Irish citizens who died abroad between 1998 and 2004.

The study revealed that if a complete autopsy is not performed, then the chance of forming a correct cause of death, or any cause of death, plunges from 100pc to 0pc where no autopsy is performed.

It is a legal requirement in Ireland that all violent, sudden, unexpected or suspicious deaths and cases in which a doctor is not present when the person dies, must be investigated by a coroner.

But domestic coroners, who are informed when an Irish body is repatriated, are under no legal obligation to investigate the deaths of Irish citizens abroad.

Now coroners are taking custody of Irish citizens repatriated here and are refusing to release bodies until they establish a cause of death, including an analysis of police and death scene reports where they are available.

The study, to be published in the Irish Medical Journal, revealed that in many foreign countries, the decision whether or not to perform an autopsy was "fairly arbitrary" and the application of autopsy standards "random and unsystematic".

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