The BBC is reporting that families may be able to request that post-mortems be carried out by MRI rather than invasively under new proposals. The qualification here is that
[c]oroners [would] make the decision on a case-by-case basis as MRI scans may not always be the appropriate means to determining a cause of death, the government said.
This looks fairly reasonable in many ways. The point of a post-mortem is to discover the cause of death; opening up a few corpses has been, up until recently, the most efficient way to do this; but there’s nothing special about opening them up. If we can learn the same non-invasively – and, sometimes, we can – then there is no need to be invasive. Indeed, it might be a less efficient way to go about things, in which case an invasive procedure would perhaps be a waste of resources and therefore (on the assumption that waste is wrong) morally problematic.
However, I do have a residual worry about the family being able to request an MRI examination instead of evisceration. The decision to pursue a post-mortem has to do with questions of justice and of public health – and, to this extent, it’s unclear why the family has any privileged position. If I objected to invasive post-mortems as a rule, then the fact that I am (or was) related to the corpse doesn’t seem to add much; and if it would be strange for me to request an MRI examination on a non-relative, and stranger yet to have that request granted – and it would – then it’s not clear why familial relationships should be any different.
There’s another problem:
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said that “justice and establishing the cause of death will always come first” but the new system will allow some flexibility “if it is a straightforward case”.
But how do we know in advance what is straightforward? The recent case of the death of Ian Tomlinson is a salutary warning: quite aside from questions surrounding the circumstances of his death, his is a case in which it was thought to be reasonably straightforward… and we’re now onto our third PM. His is a graphic example, but the point stands that even “traditional” PMs do not always give clear results, and we don’t always know whether we ought to be looking for something non-straightforward until the knives have come out.