The U.S. Supreme Court, declining to enter a bitter controversy, Monday let stand a ruling that prevented Los Angeles County authorities from turning over 16,500 aborted fetuses to a private cemetery for mass burial and religious services.
The justices, in a brief order, refused to review an appeal brought by then-Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian and the Board of Supervisors challenging a ruling by the state Court of Appeal last July. The appellate court held that allowing the ceremony in such circumstances would violate state constitutional barriers between religion and government.
Attorneys on both sides of the question agreed that the Supreme Court's decision ended the legal arguments and the fetuses would probably be incinerated as soon as possible. According to officials, the fetuses are still being stored in county facilities.
"They will now be incinerated in the usual manner of disposal of medical tissue," said Gilbert Gaynor, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union's Los Angeles chapter, which opposed the county's efforts to obtain approval for a mass burial.
Bill Stewart, senior assistant county counsel, said his office would ask the Los Angeles Superior Court for an order that the fetuses be incinerated.
The Supreme Court decision not to enter the controversy apparently closes a drawn-out dispute between the ACLU and feminist groups on one side, and county authorities and anti-abortion groups on the other over the fate of the fetuses.
At one point, even President Reagan was involved. In 1982 he wrote a letter endorsing plans for memorial services and burial "for these children," saying that the ceremony might help "strengthen our resolve to end this national tragedy" of abortion.
The fetuses were found in February, 1982, at a defunct medical laboratory in Woodland Hills. Prosecutors investigated the case but no criminal charges were filed and it was determined that the fetuses would not be needed as evidence.
Anti-abortion and religious groups sought to organize a formal burial for the fetuses. But the proposal drew sharp opposition from civil libertarians and a feminists, who urged that the remains be incinerated.
The state appellate court, in a unanimous decision, held that the fetuses could not be given burial as human remains because it would "enlist the prestige and power of the state" and would show a governmental preference for the belief that abortion is murder. The state Supreme Court declined to hear a subsequent appeal by county authorities.
In their petition to the justices, the county officials said that burial would prove less onerous and less costly than incineration--and that the arrangement between the cemetery and religious groups for a ceremony was separate from the county's role in the case. The authorities said there was a "complete lack of religious symbolism" in the mere burial of the fetuses and denied that interment would "enhance" religion.
ACLU attorneys, acting on behalf of the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center, urged the justices to refuse to review the case, saying the issue had been adequately reviewed in state courts on the basis of state law.
Monday's Supreme Court ruling came as "no surprise--just a lingering disappointment," said Paul Freeze, an attorney for the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, which wanted a burial service.
An aide to Philibosian said the former district attorney, now in private practice, had not seen the decision and had no comment.
A spokesman for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner declined comment, referring reporters to the county counsel's office.