A Catholic church plans to bury the ashes of as many as 1,000 aborted fetuses Sunday, raising a storm of protest from those who accuse it of exploiting the pain and grief of women for political purposes.
The Sacred Heart of Mary Church obtained the ashes from a mortuary that had a contract to cremate remains from the Boulder Abortion Clinic. But the clinic said it didn’t know the ashes were being given to the church.
“They have taken it upon themselves to make a macabre ritual out of this, inflicting pain on everyone,” said clinic director Dr. Warren Hern. “I have women calling me who are very upset over this. These fanatics simply cannot leave other people alone with their most intimate sorrow.”
Hern said Crist Mortuary, which does the cremations, had violated a contract that said remains would not be used in religious ceremonies. He called their actions “unconscionable” but declined to say if he planned to sue.
The owners of the mortuary defended its actions.
“First of all, Crist Mortuary obviously cremated these fetal remains at the request of the clinic, and the church had a site and was willing to take them,” said Terry Hemeyer, managing director of Service Corporation International in Houston, which operates Crist. “There was no intent of the mortuary to make any political or religious statement at all. They were trying to do the right thing, which I think they are doing.”
The church began getting ashes from the mortuary in 1996 and had been doing burial services since 2001. Parishioners went public this year to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
“We never meant this as a political statement; we wanted to give dignity to the unborn child and dignity to the pain and sorrow a woman who has had an abortion feels,” Susan LaVelle, a parish volunteer organizing the service, said.
The church cemetery has a Memorial Wall for the Unborn, with tiny plaques put there by women who have had abortions. Each one has a message:
“No less real, No less loved.”
The remains of 3,000 fetuses are buried near the wall. On Sunday, 600 to 1,000 small boxes of ashes will be emptied into a tomb and covered.
LaVelle said Chuck Myers, a Crist employee, contacted the church in 1996 after discovering human remains in material received from the abortion clinic.
“The clinic said it was just tissue, but when he opened it up he and his staff were traumatized,” she said. “He asked the church what he should do, and our priest offered to bury it.”
Myers could not be reached for comment, and LaVelle said she was baffled by the controversy.
“If we had not buried these ashes, they would have been thrown away in the trash,” she said. “Why would they be upset that we are treating the remains of unborn children with dignity?”
The Catholic Archdiocese of Denver has expressed support for what the church is doing.
“This parish and other parishes have done this for years,” Sergio Gutierrez, the diocese spokesman, said Friday. “This discussion clarifies the distinction between people who believe in the sanctity of life and those who don’t. What is their view? To discard unborn children and then worry where they end up.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said that neither the church nor mortuary had done anything against the law.
“It’s all legal,” said Glenn Mallory, a solid waste disposal specialist with the department.
Legal perhaps, but some groups say it’s a violation of privacy.
“It’s sad the church would take it upon itself to violate the doctor-patient relationship,” said Kate Horle, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “These women went to the doctor in confidence and made a difficult, personal decision. And now it’s been dragged all over the media.”
Hern said he terminated many wanted pregnancies due to serious fetal anomalies or because the pregnancy might harm or kill the mother. In some cases, he has participated in Jewish and American Indian funeral rituals after the abortion, along with the family members.
“Antiabortion zealots, Catholic or otherwise, have shown that they will stop at nothing to inflict guilt and to compound the grief, sadness and sense of loss that these women experience,” he said.
But antiabortion groups applauded the church’s actions, saying the real exploiters are abortion providers.
“I can’t praise the church enough for giving a human life a proper burial,” Leslie Hanks, spokeswoman for Colorado Right to Life, said. “When in the last 2,000 years, except for 1973 with Roe vs. Wade, would we not have thought a proper burial the appropriate thing to do?”