The purpose of a post-mortem examination (i.e. an autopsy) is to obtain a complete picture of the former health status of the deceased person and thus a fuller understanding of all the factors that may have contributed to the person’s death. This information may be important for the next of kin (e.g. if the person died from an infectious or genetic disease), or for the community as a whole (in identifying or tracing outbreaks of disease; in teaching doctors and nurses; and in checking the quality of the hospital’s diagnostic and treatment procedures).
Consent and objection to autopsies
Consent is required prior to carrying out a post-mortem examination unless it is ordered by the coroner. As is the case with organ and tissue donation, the law operates on the principle that the views a person expressed while alive about the use of their body after death will be respected once they are dead. Therefore, the law on consent for post-mortem examinations and for donation of bodies to medical schools is, in most respects, the same as for organ and tissue donation after death (see above).
Under section 156 of the PHWA 2008, the Chief Health Officer has the power to require a doctor who has appropriate qualifications or experience to carry out an autopsy on a body. An autopsy may be ordered if the Chief Health Officer believes that an infectious disease caused, may have caused, or contributed to the person’s death; an autopsy is necessary to determine whether there is a serious risk to public health; and the coroner does not have jurisdiction over the body.