Autopsies and Jewish Law

Contrary to popular belief, Jewish law does not have an absolute prohibition against autopsy--but there are clear restrictions regarding when it is permissible.

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However, when an autopsy is necessary, permission to undertake this procedure should be given only if the operation is reduced to a minimum, performed as soon as possible--and in the presence of a rabbi or observant and halakhically knowledgeable physician--and undertaken with reverence. There must be absolute assurance that all parts of the body will be retained for burial.

Because, however, the frequency of autopsies has increased, the danger exists of their becoming mere routine; and because recent studies (particularly the Journal of the American Medical Associa­tion, vol.233, 1975, pp. 441-443) have shown the questionable medical value of routine performance of postmortem dissections, permission should be withheld unless a physician who is sensitive to the halakhah [Jewish law] advises its performance in terms of the criteria for saving life which have been listed above.

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Rabbi Abner Weiss has served as a congregational rabbi in Beverly Hills, California, and London, and is a noted writer, lecturer, and halakhic authority. He has published a number of articles on Jewish bioethics.