The foetal body-burning scandal: facing the truth of a throwaway culture

An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches has revealed that the bodies of thousands of miscarried and aborted babies have been incinerated as chemical waste, with some used to heat hospitals in a waste-to-energy scheme. The programme can be watched here.

Ten NHS trusts have admitted to burning foetal remains alongside surgical waste. Two hospitals, including the world-famous Cambridge University teaching hospital Addenbrookes, processed the bodies in specially built facilities. At least 15,500 sets of remains have been incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the past two years.

The news has provoked widespread revulsion and horror. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of what Pope Francis memorably described in his address to diplomats in January as the ‘throwaway culture’. He specifically referred, as an example of that culture, to the practice of abortion, and the discarded victims who never see the light of day.

The revelations show how far the UK’s abortion laws, introduced in 1967 on the grounds of compassion, have ended numbing our nation’s sensitivity to life. Treating foetal remains as nothing more than a waste product or potential source of energy may be the law’s inevitable corollary  — especially for a hospital which treats abortion as merely a medical procedure. Jim Dobbin MP, the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group was correct when he observed that this disregard is the fruit of 50 years of abortion laws.

Dr Dan Poulter, a health minister, says it is totally unacceptable and has pledged to stamp out the practice — the only possible response to public outrage. But the main reaction has centered around the lack of sensitivity and compassion shown to parents who were not informed and given no choice over what happened to their babies’ bodies. But the real issue is that no-one within the NHS sought to question the morality of burning remains in the same incinerators and sometimes at the same time as items such as soiled dressings. What is missing is an understanding of the humanity of the babies involved.

Human life, and therefore the body, is present from the first moment of existence, which is why foetal remains must be accorded the same dignity and respect as any other human being. Donum Vitae, the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) in 1987 is clear that “the corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings”.

The NHS medical director says hospitals should bury or cremate the bodies of aborted babies. But the NHS contracts out the majority of its abortion provision to private clinics, which are not subject to the same regulations. Almost all of the 200,000 babies who are lost to abortion every year in the UK will have their remains treated in an identical fashion to the industrial incinerators exposed by Dispatches. All should be compelled to treat remains in a dignified and respectful fashion. Women using these clinics should also be asked what they would like to happen to their baby’s remains. However uncomfortable it must be for an abortion clinic, that conversation must take place.

What was clear from the heart-breaking interviews in the Dispatches programme was that the women involved did not regard their babies as ‘potential’ lives and rejected the medical terminology that seeks to obscure the the humanity of the unborn. These women were grieving for actual babies, not mere products of conception; they were known and loved, no matter how brief their time on earth. The UK charity Saying Goodbye, run by the Mariposa Trust, receives more than 600,000 hits on their website every month from grieving parents who have been denied the opportunity formally to grieve for their baby.

In the face of a culture that denies the humanity of the unborn, the Catholic Church gently asserts it, offering support, advice and comfort to grieving parents, including funeral and burial rites free of charge. The remains of unbaptised babies can be buried on consecrated ground and receive funeral rites. The Church entrusts infants who have died without baptism to the mercy of God who desires the salvation of all people.

This is a distressing story but may be seen, in retrospect, as another of those moments where the silence over abortion is temporarily shattered and the contradictions and discomforts surrounding the issue bubble to the surface. It comes at at a time when the government are seeking to liberalise existing abortion practices by stealth, despite polling data indicating enormous opposition. The government may be anxious to respond to the outraged reaction to the Channel 4 revelations; but are they listening to what lies behind it?

[Caroline Farrow]

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