Is this the ‘collateral damage’ coroner says he’s forced to bury?

The Ontario chief pathologist is defending the rationale behind the release of deformed fetuses found in a Toronto area field, arguing that the corpses should be buried in a specialized grave to preserve their evidence.

But that position is at odds with the informed consent process that is supposed to guide coroners in processing evidence like the fetuses. Because the fetuses were already dead when they were found in February, they can’t be tested.

One of the fetuses has been declared a skeleton, but hundreds remain frozen.

The provincial coroner, Stefan Grondin, has faced a firestorm of criticism this week, after the service announced he would have to kill several fetuses so that they could be buried. Grondin said he made the decision to bury the fetuses because they represent “collateral damage” from investigations into serial killer Bruce McArthur.

“However, we have an obligation to retrieve specimens from, for example, fetal or fetal-like remains, so that these will provide evidence as part of the investigation in the context of Crown Counsel and other bodies procured from other jurisdictions,” Grondin told the Globe and Mail.

As the byline says, the Globe and Mail put together a package of coverage. And here’s the part where we try to delve further into the issue of the still-standing fetuses and the state of their DNA.

Last night, I put a phone call to Dr. Grondin. I asked him to “sort of explain” the reasoning behind his decision to bury the fetuses. To which Grondin replied, “Well, I’m not going to get into all that. I can’t speak for other doctors.”

But he did take a minute to say the “carefully planned killing” order for the fetuses is not uncommon.

“I’ve had the same description from other doctors before,” Grondin said. “It’s not unusual for this.”

He also said that he has not yet made a decision about how to proceed with the other fetuses.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick, the founder of the Bioethics Project at the University of Toronto, a “independent, non-profit organization committed to advancing knowledge, promoting ethical standards, and nurturing compassion” also gave some insight into the moral calculus behind the decision.

“In broad terms, a decision to make use of remains for medical purposes (other than removing them from the body for scientific purposes) as opposed to burial is a sign of the competence and soundness of the medical ethics,” Garlick said.

It’s a complex issue, so we’ve also put together the opinion of Dr. Eric Weiner, who has been a practicing pediatrician in Virginia for 20 years.

Weiner said some younger coroners make decisions like this because they grew up as tombstones.

“I think many are still haunted by tombstones and the fact that it’s easy to be confused about what society will think,” Weiner said. “There’s a reluctance to make those judgments, particularly in the area of autopsies because they’re relatively ambiguous.”

He also said coroners often faced an issue.

“It may seem like it’s politically correct, but the reality is that some coroners may find themselves in these politically incorrect decisions,” Weiner said.

Erich Spitznagel, who works in a children’s hospital in North Carolina and has held several positions in the agency, said he understands the hesitation to disclose the circumstances.

“When these tragedies happen, the involvement of the media can be very negative,” Spitznagel said. “Although sometimes I think it’s vital to press forward and let the public know.”

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