Whitney Houston's Death: Who Gets an Autopsy?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on February 14, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Results of Whitney Houston's autopsy, performed Sunday, are pending toxicology tests, according to UPI. While an autopsy was not unexpected after Houston's death, a recent report finds autopsies in general are increasingly rare.

Today, only 5% of U.S. hospital deaths result in autopsies, according to a report by NPR, PBS' Frontline and ProPublica. That's down from about 50% of all hospital deaths half a century ago.

So what factors determine who gets an autopsy? And what does an autopsy actually entail?

What happens at an autopsy?

Whitney Houston's autopsy took place the day after the singer was found dead in a hotel room, The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog reports. Toxicology tests, which are part of the autopsy, may take weeks to complete.

An autopsy begins with the dissection of a dead body. Details are a bit gory: A pathologist makes incisions, then removes and inspects vital organs like the heart, lungs, brain, stomach, and intestines, according to the Oxford Companion to the Body. Tissue and fluid samples are taken from these organs, especially if they appear diseased or injured.

When is an autopsy performed?

State laws vary in their autopsy requirements, but in general, a forensic autopsy must be performed after a suspicious, violent, or unexpected death, Oxford says. That's why the death of an otherwise healthy Whitney Houston, who was just 48, led to a forensic autopsy.

Compare that to a hospital or medical autopsy, which generally follows a patient's ostensibly natural death in a hospital setting, and is used for confirmation or research.

Prior to 1971, the Joint Commission required autopsies for at least 20% of all hospital deaths, but no longer. Today, hospitals conduct autopsies in just 5% of patient deaths; among seniors, it's just 2.3%, ProPublica reports. The decline affects accuracy in reporting causes of death, and affects research as well, ProPublica suggests.

As for Whitney Houston's autopsy, the coroner's office apparently found water in her lungs, but not enough to support a drowning, TMZ reports. Prescription drugs and alcohol were also found in the singer's hotel room, according to TMZ.

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