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News

County supervisors support greater autopsy privacy

By Steve Bennett, Ventura County supervisor
Regarding your Jan. 3 editorial, “Prevent death of the public’s right to know”:
For the Ojai Valley News to suggest that the county medical examiner and the five supervisors took the position to preserve medical record privacy in order to enable concealment of incriminating information is a disservice to these public officials and the citizens of our community.
Ventura County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young, working with the county CEOs office, wrote a compelling public letter and spoke at the hearing of the Board of Supervisors making his request for improvements in state legislation regarding the important issue of medical privacy. 
I strongly encourage interested residents to read the Board letter and watch the video of the December 17, 2019 presentation to the Board of Supervisors at www.ventura.org. No news organization spoke or even sent in a letter or email of opposition to this proposal. 
Reading the Board letter, responding to it before the vote, or discussing the issue with a proponent before writing the editorial would all have enhanced the public debate. The press has legitimate concerns about transparency, and I stand ready to discuss and implement good ideas into any policy. However, it is better to do this before ascribing nefarious motives to people.
Here, then, is the true rationale for the Board’s action. Unfortunately, mass mortality tragedies such as the Borderline shooting or the Sandy Hook shooting become sensationalized and attract conspiracy theorists and others. They use public record requests to cause ongoing trauma, or even threats, to the families of the deceased and to the community. After the Borderline shooting, requests for autopsy reports soared. 
As Dr. Young noted, an autopsy report describes the body in great detail, including scars, tattoos and a description of the person’s genitalia. The report may include a person’s social history, drug use, psychiatric history, and other private history. Dr. Young stated: “Some families have contacted me directly and pled with me not to release these reports. They are horrified at the thought of these graphic descriptions of their relatives being released to the public.” 
Other states and countries have already provided these privacy protections. Canadian law specifically states that the right to privacy does not end at the death of an individual. At the start of this new year Californians acquired the right to data privacy. Shouldn’t we also have a right to reasonable privacy of our medical/autopsy records? 
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support the medical examiner’s recommendation to seek state legislation to preserve appropriate medical record privacy beyond death. 
We crafted no specific bill language, as we are confident that state legislation can be created that will protect the public’s need to know valuable information about causes of death while protecting a family’s medical privacy, especially from social media profiteers and bullies. 
—Steve Bennett represents the Ojai Valley on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

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