Death, for the most part, is a private matter. The pain of losing someone close is something everyone understands and few want to intrude upon. We know instinctively that those left behind are often reluctant to share with strangers details of a loved one’s demise.
Community interest, though, must sometimes be balanced against individual privacy. Information about the cause of someone’s death may be of vital, even urgent importance to all of us.
Take, for instance, the recent story of a health care worker from Saudi Arabia visiting relatives in Indiana who walked into Munster Community Hospital feeling ill. When it was confirmed that the man had developed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, state and local health officials got the word out quickly. They revealed that the man had flown into Chicago and had taken a bus to northwest Indiana, and they tried to track down and warn all who had come into contact with him.
Fortunately, the man was treated successfully and left the hospital Friday, and no one who came into contact with him is known to have developed MERS.
But what if the incident had played out differently? What if the man had died, rumors were swirling and officials had never announced his diagnosis? The public and the media would have a very legitimate interest in obtaining that information. The information might even be vital to saving other lives.
Public access to cause-of-death information might point to other threats from other types of infectious disease, potentially fatal environmental or safety hazards, or even crimes.
Some people believe that the government can always be depended upon to tell us when we should know about such things. Others believe in the Easter Bunny.
In Indiana, doctors are required to file certificates of death, which are sent to the county and the state. In 1975, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the public is entitled to those death certificates, including the cause of death, at the county level. The attorney general affirmed that in 1989. But access to such information has been hit or miss in many places, including Allen County, where the public can obtain some information about deaths, but not, routinely, the cause of death.
In Vanderburgh County, The Evansville Courier and Press protested when the local health department stopped providing it with cause-of-death information in 2012. The newspaper lost before a local judge, whose ruling in favor of the health department was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.
It appears that the health department, the local court and the appellate court all have somehow blended the requirements of the traditional death-certificate statute with a statute passed in 2009 to cover digital copies of a separate document, the certification of death registration on file with the state. Information in the certifications can only be provided to family members or others such as insurers with specific kinds of interest in a specific death.
Before the Indiana Supreme Court last week, the Courier and Press and the Hoosier State Press Association were joined by Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office in arguing that the original death certificate law still applies, and thus that cause of death information should be available to the public at the county level.
Indiana is a state that has long prided itself on openness in government, and Zoeller should be commended for carrying on that tradition.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule, but it appears that the confusion over this basic freedom-of-information issue will soon be resolved.