Supporters of the bill argued it was crucial for Virginia's dwarfs. Opponents countered that it would violate the religious rights of the Commonwealth's Muslims and Orthodox Jews.
Today, after a year of hearings and debate, a House legislative committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend passage of what is known here as "The Harvesting of the Dead" bill, a measure spelling out who can remove what from the bodies of the dead.
"it's not over yet," said Allen Goolsby the counsel for the Virginia Medical Society which pushed hard for the bill which would allow a coroner to remove organs from the body of a deceased person without the approval of next of kin as long as a "good faith effort" had been made to contact them.
"this bill sets an extremely bad precedent," said Norman Olshansky regional director of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League who complained to the committee that the religious principles of Orthodox Jews who are prohibited by Jewish law from undergoing autopsies could be violated."We are not opposed to the intent of this bill, but once it starts it's hard to stop."
House Bill 87, introduced by Del. James B. Murray, retired factory manager from the Charlottesville area, has provoked intriguing debate among civil libertarians, religious leaders and medical authorities over the rights of the living and the dead.
"these people are all concerned about the rights of dead bodies." said Goolsby, who was opposed by both B'nai B'rith and the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But somebody ought to remember the poor dwarves."
When the bill was introduced last year by Murray it proposed to allow medical examiners the right to remove without consent of next of kin only pituitary glands exposed during autopsies. Those glands are effective in the treatment of particular type of dwarfism attributed to a growth hormone deficiency. Dr. Thaddeus Kelly an endocrinologist at the University of Virginia estimates there are 14,000 dwarves of that type in the country and 100 in Virginia.
Treatment of hormone deficient dwarfism requires approximately one pituitary gland per week for each patient, but the supply is scarce. Even those children who are treated with pituitary extract are now cut off from the growth hormone when they reach five feet so that others might be allowed some of the medication.
The bill was expanded during the recess between last year's legislative session to include all organs of the body, including the most sought after: the eyes, kidneys and skin.
"It's a hard bill to go against," said Chan Kendrick, the Richmond director of the ACLU. "You want to be able to save lives but there are ways to get more donors. What they [legislators] are looking for is the easy way."
Virginia already has a law which allows the chief medical examiner or his deputies to remove organs from the deceased in cases where the next of kin cannot be reached and "no known objection by the next of kin is foreseen." But because of the vagueness of that 1968 statute, the first transplant law in the country, Virginia's chief medical examiner David Wiecking told the House committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions that he has not removed any organs during autopsies for fear of litigation.