Board approves first reading of ordinance banning “pay-per-view” autopsies in Multnomah County

April 15, 2022

When David Saunders, a 98-year-old Louisiana man, passed away from COVID-19 in August 2021, his wife donated his body for medical research. She never imagined that months later, the World War II and Korean War veteran’s body would turn up 2,500 miles away, being dissected in a Portland hotel ballroom for paying customers. 

(Left to right): Liz Smith Currie, policy advisor to Chair Deborah Kafoury; Oregon Health & Science University’s Tamara Ostervoss; and Kimberly DiLeo, the County’s Chief Medicolegal Death Investigator

“I’m deeply hurt and frustrated that I was unable to save my husband from the violation of his remains,” his widow, Elsie Saunders, said. “I was duped by selfish and involved people for the sake of their personal, monetary gain.” 

Elsie Saunders testified as an invited guest Thursday, April 14, as the Board of Commissioners approved the first reading of an ordinance outlawing “pay-per-view” autopsies in Multnomah County. The ordinance makes it unlawful to accept payment or other compensation for displaying human remains, with exceptions for medical or educational purposes and funerals.

“At Multnomah County, we work to treat people with dignity and see every individual as deserving of respect,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “And that respect most certainly must be extended to those rare people who, as one of their last acts, selflessly leave their body for science.”

On Oct. 14, 2021, Dr. Kimberly DiLeo, the County’s Chief Medicolegal Death Investigator, received a call about an event taking place at a local hotel. A company called Death Science was advertising at the Oddities and Curiosities Expo that individuals could purchase a ticket to view an autopsy. Seventy people had registered for the event, with some paying $500 for front-row seating and “in-person cadaver access.”

With more than 20 years of death investigation experience, DiLeo said she was immediately concerned. Whole body donations are intended for medical research, training, and education. It’s unethical for commercial enterprises to profit off the use of bodies donated for research.

“No family should bear the horror or guilt associated with learning that their loved one was placed on display for paying members of the public to autopsy and touch their organs,” DiLeo said. 

DiLeo contacted the general manager of the hotel and convinced them to cancel it. The event organizers quickly relocated to another site. When DiLeo contacted the general manager at the new location, they refused to cancel the rescheduled event. 

She also reached out to  the Portland Police Bureau and the Oregon Medical Board, but neither felt they had he legal authority to stop the event, DiLeo said. Without the legal authority to stop the event, the for-profit dissection continued in a hotel ballroom without intervention. 

An investigative journalist was among those attending.  Video evidence revealed that members of the audience did not wear appropriate personal protective equipment. Footage also captured an arm band identifying Saunders. A story on the event was later published, revealing Saunders’ full name to the public. His wife learned of the public autopsy from a reporter.

Across the country, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore came across a news report detailing the incident. He contacted officials in Nevada and Oregon, including Dr. DiLeo, to see whether any criminal violations had occurred.

“To my dismay, I found that we are severely lacking in statutes and ordinances that cover this,” Moore said. “This body was not treated like any body is treated in any legitimate autopsy.” 

Tamara Ostervoss, who oversees Oregon Health & Science University’s Body Donation Program, is a licensed funeral director and embalmer with more than 12 years’ experience in death care. Each year, her program supports 2,000 students studying medicine, dentistry, radiation therapy, nursing, or other health professions. She said the unethical use of whole body donors harms the credibility of legitimate programs and hinders the education of healthcare professionals. 

“I personally answer the phone calls from concerned members of the public every time a negative news story breaks, like the event that took place with Mr. Saunders,” Ostervoss said. “I’m the one that has to regain their trust, make families feel okay with their loved one’s decision.”

The amendment to Multnomah County Code makes it unlawful to accept payment or other consideration for displaying human remains. It was drafted with support from OHSU, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Portland Art Museum, and Portland Chinatown Museum.

“Disrespect for death is disrespect for life,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “There’s a long, dark history of this sort of practice that encompasses the Holocaust, encompasses genocides of all kinds.”

The ordinance includes three types of penalties. The County may issue a penalty of up to $1,000 per violation per day, which is the maximum amount that a public health authority can issue under Oregon law. The violator must also transfer to the County any money made from the event. The County can also seek any costs and fees incurred by enforcing the ordinance itself.

The local public health administrator would enforce the law by issuing citations. The County Attorney may also file a civil action in circuit court for injunctive or declaratory relief and to seek any other remedy or damages. 

“The main purpose is to target the commercialization of displaying dead bodies to the public and provide for a workable enforcement mechanism,” said Rob Sinnott, the Senior Assistant County Attorney.

Elsie Saunders said that her husband, as a combat survivor who served his country, did not deserve to be dismembered in front of a paying audience. She told commissioners that she can only hope that no family has to endure the same heartbreak and grief as her.

With the first reading passed, the ordinance goes to a second reading before final adoption. The board is scheduled to take up the second reading on Thursday, April 21. At that point, the ordinance will be fully enforceable. 

Commissioners expressed their condolences to Saunders and shared their hopes that other communities will pass similar ordinances modeled after Multnomah County’s.

“My heart goes out to Elsie Saunders for speaking here today and sharing her heartbreaking story,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “Mr. Saunders sounded like he was an amazing person and he gave much of himself to his family, his community, and his country.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann called on lawmakers to consider looking at additional penalties. “I would urge that we make this a criminal issue and that we talk to our state legislators, our other counties, so that a family never has to go through this again,” she said. 

“I’m glad we have the power to take action on this,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I’m glad to support this, as something like this can never happen again, at least in Multnomah County.”