Incineration of foetal remains in British hospitals – investigation

Almost exactly a year ago, I started to receive a series of emails confirming that British hospitals were incinerating foetal remains from abortions and miscarriages – sometimes in waste-to-energy power plants.

In short, the remains of foetuses were being burned by hospitals to generate heat and electricity.

It was a shocking discovery. In fact, after the investigation finally aired months later as a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary and series of newspaper articles, the Government banned the practice – with immediate effect.

Now, a year on, the investigation has been shortlisted at the British Journalism Awards for Investigation of the Year.

For me, my business partner Paul McNamara, and the team at our agency OpenWorld News, it’s a huge achievement.

It was also an unusual start to an investigation. Normally a practice like this might be revealed by a whistleblower, or a source – someone perhaps who works in an incinerator and finds out exactly what is in the bags they’re burning.

But this started with another newspaper article I’d read in the summer of 2013 in the Sunday People newspaper. This is the online copy with the headline ‘Hospital dumps premature baby’s body in mass grave, but tells parents she has been cremated‘.

Howver, I read the print version, a double-page spread with the more emotive, first-person headline ‘Hospital dumped my baby in unmarked mass grave without us knowing. They called her P67. Her name’s Lily.’

Sunday People - 'Hospital dumped my baby in unmarked mass grave without us knowing'

I remember seeing it as I read through all the Sunday papers outside on a beautiful, sunny day. Once I’d finished reading it, I separated the page from the rest of the paper, and put it into a file of cuttings I keep of stories I want to follow up.

What happened to this couple couldn’t help but raise questions, not just about their own case, but other couples who have lost babies. What happens to the remains of these children (including those who die before birth, and those lost after)? How many hospitals use ‘mass graves’? Do parents know where their child is laid to rest (as this couple certainly didn’t)? Are parents always informed? And so on.

The cutting ended up in a bundle of others in the office, by my keyboard. It took another two months for me to get round to following it up.

What I then found out (with a bit of calling around, and researching hospital websites and newspaper files) was a surprise. That in many places foetal remains were being incinerated. Sometimes the process was described as “sensitive”. Sometimes it was done “as waste”.

I drafted some potential FOI requests and, mid September, on a quiet afternoon I sent them around to Paul and the OpenWorld News team. I still have a copy, with the subject ‘FOI ideas’, and starting with the question “I’ve not seen these done before… any thoughts?…”

As awful as the subject was, we decided they should be submitted.

The request asked for details of how many foetal remains were disposed of in a variety of different ways, including mass burials and incineration, either separately, in groups, or (as I’d heard may still be happening) as clinical waste.

And, around a year ago today, a fairly complete picture began to emerge.

Of course, the FOIs were only part of the story. Once the show was commissioned by Channel 4 Dispatches (as a co-production with the fantastic ITN Productions to guide it through), a whole new phase of research began.

With Paul and I working as producers (with him full time with ITN and two producer/directors) we had to find couples who had lost their child, only to find they then went through more pain when the remains were disposed of. We had to confirm exactly what parents are told by the hospitals who were using incineration, and mass graves. And we had to examine the laws and regulations that meant foetuses could be disposed of as waste, and who had responsibility for ensuring these human remains were treated with respect.

As the show went to air, the Department of Health asked to see all our research, so they could examine exactly what was happening. The PDF document below is the final version Paul and I (and our team) passed on to them, and since published as a Deposited Paper in the House of Commons library in response to a parliamentary question.

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Within this, you can read the original responses from hospitals admitting to mass incinerations. You can see those hospitals that were forced to reveal that aborted and miscarried foetuses were disposed of in “waste-to-energy” furnaces, seemingly without considering the effect that would have on couples who viewed their unborn baby as a child, and who’d prepared their homes ready to take their baby home.

You can also see consent forms we obtained from a series of hospitals, including the world-renowned Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where parents were told their child would be “cremated”, when in reality the child would be incinerated in their own waste-to-energy furnace. This was undeniably not “cremation”, and many parents would have been left unaware of how foetuses were treated.

After reading the research, the Department of Health announced all incineration of foetal remains must stop. Immediately.

This investigation shows the power of Freedom of Information laws, along with the importance of large-scale, lengthy investigative journalism (always brilliantly done by Channel 4 Dispatches) in exposing public interest issues and affecting change.

The winners of the British Journalism Awards 2014 will be announced at Stationers Hall on December 2. The other finalists for Investigation of the Year are incredibly strong, but whatever happens we’re really proud to have brought this issue to light.

If you have any information about practices in hospitals, have a story to tell, or you think we should look into an issue, leave a comment, or feel free to contact me directly using any of the details on the contact page.

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