Last month, a healthy, 54 year old man died while hiking alone in the wilderness. Brian Grobois was an experienced outdoorsman who hiked weekly. He was a psychiatrist and tai chi enthusiast with no health issues or illnesses that might have contributed to his death. His body, found on Mt. Rainier at an elevation of 5,400 feet, was covered in unexplained bruises.
How did Grobois die? We will never know because a devout religious belief prevented the medical examiner from performing an autopsy. Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark, a certified forensic pathologist with more than 20 years of experience, was prevented from fulfilling his legally mandated job, by a court kowtowing to religious orthodoxy.
On the basis of the unanswered questions and suspicious circumstances of Grobois’s death, Clark decided an autopsy was necessary. Grobois’s family—Orthodox Jews—objected. Orthodox Judaism states that a dead body should be returned to the earth complete and as quickly as possible. Rabboi Zalman Heber, director of Chabad Jewish Center of Pierce County, quickly intervened on behalf of the family. Shortly thereafter the governor got involved on behalf of the Grobois. So did Erin Brokovich. They took the matter to court and successfully received an injunction to prevent the autopsy.
When Grobois did not contact his family after his day-hike the worried family contacted Rainer National Park authorities, who later found Grobois. Park authorities assumed he died of the cold and flew his body to Madigan Army Medical Center where he was pronounced dead of “hypothermia/cardiac arrest.” There are two important things to note about this finding. First, it has no legal significance whatsoever. This pronouncement was not made by experts in determining causes of death but by regular doctors. Second, it does not answer important questions — such as what caused the cardiac arrest, why was the body bruised, and how did a healthy, experienced outdoorsman succumb to the cold? As Dr. Clark put it “[The Madigan doctors] wrote the only thing they knew, which is the body was cold. The body can get cold and cause death, or death can happen for some other reason and then the body can get cold, and they don’t have a basis for telling the difference.” Clark also pointed out that the significant bruising found on Grobois is inconsistent with the theory that he became lost and died of hypothermia.
The media coverage is replete with ridiculous religious statements, such as Rabbi Heber’s claim, “This is not a matter of life and death. This is a matter of death and afterlife.” His second sentence is two words too long. This is a matter of death, and possibly even a matter of murder. The suspicious circumstances and death occurred in a location where two weeks later a traumatized veteran brought the Rambo movie to life and killed a park ranger in the process. Despite the fact that the only expert to investigate the death, Dr. Clark, unequivocally stated an autopsy was need to determine the cause of death, Heber said that “From all angles, there was no need for an autopsy,” and claimed that the family was confident Grobois died of hypothermia. But why? Dr. Clark had enough doubts that he listed the cause of death on Grobois death certificate as “undetermined. Examination prohibited by court order.” Religious certainty on matters of science is well documented but this arrogance is too much.
Unfortunately, we will never know the true cause of Grobois’s death — two days after the court order the body was buried in Jerusalem. But the ramifications of this case are far from over. Today, the state legislature of Washington is considering SB 6068 and HB 2429, which would read: “in the absence of a compelling public necessity, no dissection or autopsy shall be performed over the objection of a surviving relative or friend of the deceased that the procedure is contrary to the religious belief of the decedent or if there is otherwise reason to believe that a dissection or autopsy is contrary to the decedent’s religious beliefs.”
This is not the first religious exemption to Washington law, but the trend is dangerous. Washington law (CWA 9A.42.005) provides for criminal penalties against those who withhold from children, dependents, and vulnerable adults “the basic necessities of life, including food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care, or abandoning them, or both.” But “treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned.” There is no universal Christian Science objection to autopsies but many adherents do object. It is easy to envision many scenarios in which religious principle will be invoked to cover up negligence, abuse or worse. Our government allows the religious to get away with a lot, but this is beyond the pale.
Washington’s southern neighbor has been dealing with a particularly nasty religious sect, the Church of the Firstborn. While the autopsy saga was playing out in Washington, in Oregon, the police were investigating the death of Austin Sprout, a 16-year-old boy. Sprout’s family was a member of the aforementioned church that engages in “faith healing” and rejects modern medicine. One of Sprout’s teachers said he had flu-like symptoms for two weeks prior to his death. The teacher also mentioned similar speculation involving the September 2007 death of Brian Sprout, Austin’s father. With the new Washington law it is not even clear that an investigation would be allowed. Without the forensic evidence that an autopsy can produce there is no way for a criminal investigation to proceed.
It would be unwise for Washington legislatures to carve out a religious exception that places religious dogma outside the purview of criminal investigations. This new law was motivated by Dr. Clark’s insistence on performing an autopsy and the ensuing court case. The legislature proposed the bill so that courts have a law to fall back on when preventing investigations into a cause of death. The bill allows for a compelling governmental interest to overcome the religious objection, but if a mysterious death is not a compelling reason to conduct an autopsy, what is?