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A Pentagon watchdog report has uncovered that the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System retained hundreds of organs from autopsies without informing families.

This practice involved keeping brains, hearts, and other organs at the Dover Air Force Base morgue in Delaware. According to a Department of Defense official, the collection includes 553 specimens from 433 individuals. The official stated, “It’s mainly in order to not retraumatize families. Some of these are from many, many years ago.”

The Pentagon’s Inspector General report pointed out the lack of consistent procedures in handling and storing organs, leading to incomplete records. The investigation covered autopsies from 2006 to 2022, revealing failures in recording and respecting families’ wishes regarding the disposal of organs. Specifically, it was found that in over half of the cases, wishes were not documented, and in 41% of cases where they were, they weren’t followed.

One highlighted case from 2010 showed a family’s request for cremation and specific disposal of organs was not honored, with the remains still in inventory as of last March. In response to these findings, the Department of Defense has initiated steps to improve the medical examiner’s tracking system.

Eli Shupe, an assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Texas at Arlington, commented on the report, highlighting two failures: “There’s the failure to notify families, and then there’s a failure to respect the wishes of the next of kin when they’ve gone through the trouble of soliciting those wishes.” Shupe also noted the potential distress for families upon discovering that their loved ones’ bodies were incomplete, stating, “This kind of negligence is something that people will find extremely distressing.”

This all comes after a policy update in September 2022, which no longer requires its medical staff to notify family members when organs are retained during an autopsy.


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