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French hospitals storing fetuses, stillborns

/ Source: The Associated Press

Investigators probing the shocking discovery of hundreds of fetuses and stillborn babies stored in a Paris hospital morgue are likely to find the practice is widespread in France, a top medical specialist said Wednesday.

A day after officials said 351 stillborn babies and fetuses were kept at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Hospital’s morgue — some for two decades — more than 100 worried families called a hot line to inquire about their cases, hospital authorities said.

Investigators were probing how such a breach of French law could have happened, and why. But one top geneticist and medical ethicist said he was not surprised.

“I think that there are fetuses and stillborn infants in all maternity wards at university hospitals,” Dr. Axel Kahn, a member of France’s national ethics committee, told The Associated Press. “Once, it was the norm ... Researchers who needed them for their work asked obstetricians not to dispose of them.”

The law was changed in the mid-1990s to prevent the practice.

Babies supposed to be cremated

Current French law calls for bodies of unclaimed stillborn babies to be cremated within 10 days. Fetuses cannot be used for medical purposes except with the parents’ consent. In that case, the bodies must be cremated within six months.

Even after the laws were changed, some specialists at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul may have wanted to keep the remains to do genetic testing on them one day, Kahn said.

At the hospital in southern Paris, some jars in the morgue contained autopsied bodies, and others, dismembered body parts. The oldest remains dated from 1985, and around 20 bodies had been conserved in the last year, Paris hospital officials said.

While most were either aborted fetuses or stillborn babies, at least two had been born alive and died shortly after.

Health officials have launched a wider inquiry to find out if the practice existed at other hospitals.

“There was no reason why those bodies should have been kept,” Rosemarie Van Lerberghe, general director of the Paris public hospital system, said at a news conference.

'Disgraceful' conditions

Health Minister Xavier Bertrand described his shock at visiting the morgue, saying the remains were stored in “disgraceful” conditions.

“I still have these disturbing images in my mind, these sacks and bottles of formaldehyde spread out,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.

The hospital has not addressed who kept the fetuses, or why. The remains were stored under lock and key in a two-room annex off the morgue’s refrigerator room, news reports said. Only a few people had access to the rooms.

Dr. Pierre-Marie Cousin, president of the union of gynecologists and obstetricians, pointed out that Saint-Vincent-de-Paul carries out autopsies on stillborn infants from other hospitals.

“An autopsy for a child takes considerable work, and the delay to obtain one can reach up to six months,” he told AP. “The fact that the burial or cremation of these stillborn babies wasn’t carried out is perhaps negligence, but not a moral problem.”

One woman’s search for the remains of a fetus she had aborted in 2002 led to the discovery, Le Parisien reported.

“I wanted to verify that my child was cremated, like they said he would be,” 27-year-old Caroline Lemoine was quoted as telling the paper. Following repeated requests for the date of cremation, the hospital acknowledged it had not disposed of the body.

“They told me ’Your son has not been cremated, his body is still here,”’ said Lemoine, who had the abortion after doctors said her pregnancy was not viable.

“At last I knew the truth,” she said.