Extremists Trafficking in Fetal Remains

This Op-ed ran in the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News on Friday, November 19, 1999.

In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of dead human embryos, fetuses, and infants were collected by hospitals and universities for research purposes. The remains and tiny bodies were collected by the scores, retrieved from miscarriage, induced abortion, surgery, and autopsy. They were shipped across state lines and national borders, dissected, dismembered, eviscerated, and sliced into sections for scientific research. It sounds ghoulish today, but results of this research led to better prenatal care and medical treatments for diseases of pregnancy and infancy. The results also taught the public about fetal development, which led, perhaps ironically, to calls for restricting such research in the future.

Laws against fetal tissue research and trafficking in fetal body parts are now tougher and more effective than ever in this country's history. Yet on Tuesday [November 9], the House of Representatives passed a resolution [HR 350] to investigate alleged trafficking in fetal body parts. Its sponsors - Thomas Tancredo (R-CO), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Chris Smith (R-NJ) - allege that companies are buying fetal tissue and organs from abortion clinics to sell them to researchers for profit.

The legislators have allowed themselves to be used as pawns in a crude ploy. All the information they cited was provided by an anti-abortion outfit called Life Dynamics, based in Denton, Texas. Founded in 1992 by Mark Crutcher, Life Dynamics trains anti-abortion activists and devises new strategies to turn the public against abortion. Its latest tactic is outlined in its just-released pamphlet, "Baby Parts Marketing." This sensationalist tract describes a litany of fetuses allegedly dissected alive and sold in pieces to a secret research industry. But none of the allegations can be substantiated. Why did the one technician interviewed, identified only by a pseudonym, tell her story to Life Dynamics but not to the mainstream media? "Baby Parts Marketing" named two companies allegedly engaged in illegal trafficking, but both had packed up and disconnected their phones before reporters or legislators could talk to them. The evidence is shaky at best, yet the House voted to spend taxpayer money on a thorough investigation.

Even if Life Dynamics could substantiate its claims, the sale of fetal tissue is already prohibited under the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act and the National Organ Transplant Act. The proper response to violations would be to prosecute the offenders rather than to hold hearings. Life Dynamics would obviously prefer to have the House hold hearings, which will give them a public platform for their lurid propaganda. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate to ask who is exploiting dead fetuses?

Last year the San Bernardino County Coroner in California released the remains of 54 aborted fetuses to a Christian pro-life group. The group named each fetus and, with television cameras rolling, paraded 54 little white caskets to the cemetery for burial. The Coroner had been holding the fetuses for a year, as evidence in a case against the truck driver who had dumped them illegally in a field. The Coroner knew that fetal remains are classified as medical waste, for which incineration is the only legal means of disposal. Yet he was willing to exploit these dead bodies, irrespective of the families' wishes, so that he could pull off an anti-abortion publicity stunt.

Exploitation of fetal remains has become a standard tactic for anti-abortion activists. During the Democratic Convention in 1992, Harley David Belew presented a dead fetus to Bill Clinton. Activists have thrust dead fetuses at women during clinic protests, pulled them out as evidence in the courtroom, and thrown them at politicians on the campaign trail. The extremist Pro-Life Action League in Chicago has conducted "body finds," swiping fetal remains from pathology labs and sending them to abortion groups around the country for well-publicized burials. Who, we might ask, is engaging in trafficking of fetal remains?

The disposition of fetal remains and body parts is already strictly regulated by Federal law. Violators are subject to criminal penalties. By passing HR 350, the House has voted to investigate the wrong issue. They disregarded the consensus achieved by the scientists, ethicists, and elected officials who wrote the laws, and their actions insure that anti-abortion zealots will be allowed to continue exploiting fetal remains for propaganda purposes.

Lynn M. Morgan is Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College and editor of Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).