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Feminist Center Challenges Planned Burial of Fetuses

Times Staff Writer

The dispute over how to dispose of 16,500 fetuses found in Woodland Hills three years ago has not been resolved after all.

The Feminist Women’s Health Center of Los Angeles went to court Friday to block Los Angeles County’s move to have the fetuses buried in a non-religious ceremony, a plan that had appeared to settle the longstanding controversy.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien refused Friday to halt the burial, but the women’s health center said it would likely appeal the decision. It claims the proposed burial would violate the privacy of women who had abortions.

Gilbert Gaynor, an attorney for the women’s health clinic, where abortions are performed, argued that burial would thwart the “reasonable expectation” of a woman that tissue excised from her body would be incinerated.

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O’Brien called the argument interesting, but stood by his July ruling that the county could authorize burial as long as there is no religious ceremony.

“I could get from here to there,” he said in response to Gaynor’s argument, “if there was some reasonable difference between incineration and burial.” But the judge said state law gives the county the discretion to opt for either form of disposal, and that he would act under that statute.

“The woman, would she care?” O’Brien asked.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 27 ordered the burial of the fetuses, which were found in 1982 in a container at the Woodland Hills home of a man who operated a Santa Monica medical laboratory. The county stored the fetuses for three years while both sides in the abortion controversy debated their disposition.

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Religious and anti-abortion groups argued for funeral services. American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing the Los Angeles clinic asked for incineration on the grounds that the fetuses are unwanted biological tissue.

The county argued that burial in itself is not a religious event and ordered the fetuses turned over to the Gutierrez-Alexander Mortuary for burial.

Jack M. Schuler, an attorney for the mortuary, said Friday that no cemetery has been selected, although several have offered space. Schuler said that, under the court’s order, the cemetery selected cannot have any religious affiliation.

Gaynor indicated after Friday’s hearing that his clients will likely ask the state Court of Appeal to stay the burial order while the privacy issue is appealed. A notice of appeal of O’Brien’s July ruling already has been filed, he said.

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