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In free societies people do not die without the public knowing the nature and circumstances of their deaths. Yet some in the Connecticut General Assembly don't seem to grasp this concept. They consider it good public policy to restrict public access to death certificates. In this case, what we don't know can certainly hurt us.
The proposals to withhold vital information are an overreaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Clerks in that traumatized town were troubled by the many requests for death certificate information as reporters from across the nation, even the world, descended on Newtown after the killings of 20 students and six educators.
"The media has repeatedly contacted my office requesting copies of all death records," testified Town Clerk Debbie A. Aurelia during an appearance before the Public Health Committee. "In the eight years I have been in office I have seen only relatives, authorized agencies … and attorneys requesting these documents and urge that we officially change the law …"
Ms. Aurelia's upset over what she apparently considers a ghoulish pursuit of information and her desire to protect the privacy of the grieving families is understandable, even laudable. But emotions should not drive public policy.
Because of concerns voiced by the clerk and others in Newtown, two proposals to restrict access to death certificates are moving through the legislature. Bill 5733 would make publicly available only the name, gender and date of death. There would be no public record of cause of death, or where the body was taken, who reported the death, the address of the deceased, where the death occurred - all information now available.
Bill 5421 would keep entirely secret for six months all death certificates of those under age 18. That is some improvement, we suppose. An original version of bill would have kept such information closed for 10 years!
The General Assembly should reject these bills.
We find the testimony of Wayne Carver, the state's Chief Medical Examiner, compelling. Dr. Carver explained the job of his office "is to explain why people have died when the reason was not obvious through other means."
Dr. Carver urged the legislature to leave the current death certificate rules in place.
"This bill is a well intentioned effort to solve a problem which really does not exist and has the potential to create unintended problems," testified the medical examiner on Bill 5421.
"When an individual dies and the reason is not known, speculation and misinformation abound, soon followed by fear and, unfortunately all too often, their evil little brother - conspiracy theory," stated Dr. Carver.
He noted that access to information about the cause and circumstances of a death "is especially needful in minor children" because the vast majority of their "deaths come about through mechanisms that are suicidal, homicidal or accidental in nature. In other words, they are preventable."
"But that which is not identified," noted Dr. Carver, "cannot be prevented."
Wouldn't the authorized "agent of a state or federal agency" - who would have access under the law - provide a necessary safeguard?
Not necessarily, because sometimes it is an investigative reporter, advocacy group or curious citizen that can identify reasons for concerns about a pattern of deaths. And what if agents of the government just as soon information not come out? Even in circumstances where a child dies in state custody, information would remain closed under the proposed bills.
"Prevention is not done by a small category of scientists but by society at large," testified Dr. Carver. "This only works when the information is public."
State law already protects from disclosure truly personal information - Social Security number, occupation, educational level. Autopsy reports, which provide graphic and explicit information about deaths, are largely unavailable to the public.
The small but vital information now available on death certificates should remain public.