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German prosecutor investigates the removal of dead babies' organs

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 08 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:77
  1. Déirdre Tilmann Mahkorn
  1. Bergisch Gladbach

    Owing to a major television report dealing with the allegedly illegal removal of organs in postmortem examinations, the public prosecutor of the German city of Mönster has now started an investigation.

    Just before Christmas, the political programme Panorama reported that Mönster based pathologists had removed organs from at least 41 babies for the benefit of a study concerning the sudden infant death syndrome without fully informing the bereaved parents.

    In 33 cases the parents of the babies concerned had signed a consent form that explicitly stated that a postmortem examination may also entail the removal of tissue samples.

    Very few consent forms, however, mentioned the permanent removal of complete organs. This fact in particular was the main focus of criticism voiced by the spokesperson of a self help group for the parents of children whose deaths had been attributed to the sudden infant death syndrome.

    The lack of a national uniform consent form is one of the major issues, which pathologists are now planning to tackle. So far, a couple from Cologne has reclaimed the heart of their child who died from the sudden infant death syndrome and on whom a postmortem examination was performed.

    In Germany the legal situation of the removal of tissue and organ material remains unclear. There is no federal law dealing with the issue of postmortem examinations, and different localities have different laws. In Berlin and Saxony, for example, a postmortem examination can be carried out only if the deceased gave consent before death or if the relatives give consent.

    Postmortem examinations are performed in only about 1%of deaths, down from 5.6%in 1985. In the sudden infant death syndrome, as with any case where the cause of death is unclear, the performance of a postmortem examination is mandatory. Pathologists do not need the permission of relatives to perform such an examination.

    It is generally accepted, however, that for ethical reasons it is the right of relatives to be informed. The public prosecutor is now investigating whether any offence has been committed.

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