Tribal member’s story powers legislative push for religious objection to autopsies

Published 9:41 am Friday, March 27, 2015

ST. PAUL — Winnie LaPrairie’s voice quivered as she recounted the days-long fight to save her husband’s body from an autopsy that would disrupt his journey to the spirit world: a request to release his body rebuffed, a court order that yielded no immediate results and hours standing in the cold in protest.

“I still could not take him home. I was heartbroken,” LaPrairie, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told state lawmakers Thursday. “Everything that my family went through could happen tomorrow or to someone else. Please don’t let that happen.”

LaPrairie’s struggle in February is powering a push for a new state law allowing religious exemptions to autopsies. A bill is heading to the House floor after a committee unanimously approved it Thursday, and a similar bill is proceeding in the Senate. At least eight states allow religious objections to autopsies.

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Lawmakers must balance the concerns of American Indian families and other religious groups — for whom an autopsy violates their faith — and the medical examiners who glean important information on a given death. Representatives from both sides said Thursday that Republican Rep. Steve Green’s bill reached that compromise.

Green’s bill requires medical examiners to notify a family of a planned autopsy and gives the family grounds to object on religious grounds. But it also provides an avenue for autopsies to proceed in cases of crime investigations, concerns about public health impact and a dozen other instances of “compelling state interest.”

“Hopefully this will never happen again,” said Green, of Fosston.

LaPrairie’s husband, Mushkoob Aubid, was involved in a car accident in northeastern Minnesota but died of a heart condition. LaPrairie and her family couldn’t take Aubid’s body home to East Lake for a traditional funeral because the county medical examiner wanted to perform an autopsy. After days of pleading and assistance from county attorneys, Aubid’s body was finally released.

“Who is protecting us and looking out for us?” LaPrairie asked. “Because that night, nobody with power was.”

A similar incident in the death of a 24-year-old tribe member that same week hammered home the need in proponents’ mind to change state law.

It’s not only American Indians who may have religious objections. Brian Rusche of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition said that the bill could also give comfort to members of Muslim, Amish, Hmong, and Orthodox Jewish communities, too.

Gov. Mark Dayton is on board with the measure.

“It’s something we need to build a new respect for, a new understanding of and that’s something I’m hopeful will be enacted by the Legislature,” Dayton said at a Muslim American Society of Minnesota event Wednesday near the Capitol.

He told reporters afterward that the proposed law must include overrides for cases of homicides and deaths from infectious diseases.

“But I think if somebody has and demonstrates sincere, strong religious principles to not permit a public-sector autopsy, that should be given as much consideration as reasonable,” Dayton said.