Melanie McDonagh

Burning foetuses to heat hospitals: a perfect metaphor for modern Britain

Burning foetuses to heat hospitals: a perfect metaphor for modern Britain
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By way of a metaphor for the way the NHS and, come to that, the law regards foetuses, you can’t really better the reality, viz, that foetal remains from abortions and miscarriages are being incinerated in NHS hospitals and possibly used to heat that hospital.

If a foetus lives less than 13 weeks, it could, in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, for instance, be used as fuel as part of the hospital’s waste-to-energy schemes. And 13 weeks is just over three months’ gestation – the point at which wanted foetuses register as recognisably human on the scans that prospective parents take home and show their friends. Meanwhile, the unwanted foetuses, or the ones that die early, get dumped with the used disposable gloves, in the incinerator. I don’t know why, but it’s almost worse that some of these unfortunates are burnt as part of a progressive energy-efficiency scheme; it somehow demonstrates our social priorities – with recycling way above respect for human remains.

We owe this gruesome insight to the Channel 4 Dispatches team, which, in a programme aired tonight, reveals that at least 15,500 foetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts in the last two years alone and that Addenbrooke’s incinerated 797 foetuses below 13 weeks’ gestation at their waste-to-energy plant. It’s not alone; another facility at Ipswich was given foetal remains from another hospital as part of its waste – which is used to heat the hospital.

I swear; Jonathan Swift couldn’t have made it up.

There’s now a bit of a flutter in the NHS henhouse on the back of the revelations, with the health minister, Dr Dan Poulter, calling it ‘totally unacceptable’. But that is largely due to the fact that many of the foetuses in question were in fact the product of miscarriages...they were wanted, see? Prof Sir Mike Richards, Chief Inspector of Hospitals, said, ‘I am disappointed trusts may not be informing or consulting women and their families.’ Indeed the central thrust of the programme, called ‘Exposing Hospital Heartache’, is about the treatment that people who suffer early miscarriages sometimes receive.

And I think most of us would agree that their grief at their loss should be respected, and that they should indeed be consulted about what’s done with their offspring’s remains. But that does rather leave out of account the aborted foetuses, the ones that weren’t wanted. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting their mothers should be consulted – it might be thought a bit tactless. But a foetus is a foetus; if a wanted one is entitled to be buried or cremated decently as a fellow human being, well, same goes for the aborted ones. The law entitles us to kill them – up to birth in the case of disability – but it should not preclude treating their bodies with respect, as something other than refuse. Indeed, when parents grieve over the loss of a miscarried foetus, they are saying something about the status of unborn humans. But would Dispatches have troubled to make a programme about merely aborted remains being used as hospital fuel? I wonder.