Abu Kabir Head Only Reprimanded for Illegal Organ Removal

The director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, Prof. Yehuda Hiss, will get off with a reprimand for his role in the illegal removal of organs from 125 bodies autopsied by the institute, according to a plea bargain he recently reached with the state prosecution.

Under this plea bargain, disciplinary charges were filed against Hiss in the Civil Service Disciplinary Court. Hiss confessed to the charges, and in exchange, the prosecution asked the court to limit his sentence to a reprimand. The court has not yet issued its decision, but it is expected to uphold the plea bargain.

According to the charge sheet, the institute autopsied thousands of bodies between 1996 and 2000. In 125 of these cases, however, organs or tissues were removed from the bodies without the families' consent, which by law is required for organ removal. These organs and tissues, which included livers, brains, breasts, wombs, testicles and prostates, were removed for research purposes.

In 105 cases, the family had consented to the autopsy, but was not asked whether it also consented to the removal of tissue for research purposes. In another 13 cases, the family had consented to the autopsy but explicitly refused to consent to the removal of tissue for research purposes. In the remaining seven cases, the autopsy was performed pursuant to a court order that did not explicitly authorize the removal of tissue for research purposes as well.

The disciplinary charge sheet accuses Hiss of having failed in his responsibilities as the institute's director by "not setting down standard work procedures that would ensure strict compliance with the law and prevent the removal of samples for research without the explicit consent of family members." He also failed to lay down procedures for reviewing the documentation in each case to determine whether or not the family had consented, it said.

The charges are the culmination of a five-year investigation into the affair by the Health Ministry, the police and the state prosecution. The Health Ministry's initial probe was sparked by complaints from Abu Kabir workers and a series of investigative reports in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

The ministry's findings, published in April 2001, were severe: The institute, it said, had not only removed organs from bodies without the families' consent; it had also performed autopsies that violated the terms of court orders and deceived both the families and the ministry. The removed organs and tissue, it found, were generally sold to research institutes and hospitals for research purposes, with the money being used to defray the costs of the autopsies.

In some cases, Haaretz later reported, the removed organs were even added to private collections maintained by Abu Kabir workers: One doctor, for instance, maintained one collection of skulls and another of skin.

However, the ministry report cleared Hiss of allegations that the institute had engaged in organ sales for profit; it also refuted allegations that the autopsies themselves were conducted without the families' consent.

And a minority opinion attached to the report by two members of the investigative committee, professors Eliezer Rosenman and Yosef Almog, praised Hiss, saying the institute had flourished as never before under his direction, and that he deserved "a round of applause" for coping with the pressure of autopsying and identifying hundreds of victims of terror attacks while still displaying "maximum consideration for the victims' families."