Oh, and while we’re talking about media hype…

… there’s this, from last week’s Independent:

Thousands of unborn foetuses incinerated to heat UK hospitals

The bodies of more than 15,000 unborn foetuses have been incinerated in the UK, an investigation has found, with some treated as “clinical waste” and others burned to heat hospitals.

The practice was carried out by 27 NHS trusts, with at least 15,500 bodies burned over the last two years alone.

Ten of those trusts admitted to burning more than 1,000 sets of remains along with other hospital rubbish, while two said they were incinerated in “waste-to-energy” furnaces that generate energy used to power and heat hospitals.

Gasp!  One kind of human tissue is disposed of in the same way as other kinds of human tissue!

From the tone of the reporting, one would only be mildly surprised to find people employed to encourage abortions in order that hospitals can save money on fuel.

Except that that’s nonsense.  If clinical waste is incinerated in waste-to-heat plants, it doesn’t follow that it’s being incinerated to provide heating; rather, it’s that the heat from the incinerator is captured and put to use, rather than being wasted.  For sure, the physics is the same; but the emphasis makes a heck of a difference.  (And, as PZ points out, for abortus* to be an effective fuel would require them to be “the most energy-dense substance in the world”.)  So what we actually have is a situation in which an abortus is incinerated.

And the problem with that is…?


Well, I’m sure there must be one, because health minister Dan Poulter is reported as describing the practice as “totally unacceptable”, and Poulter is an honourable man.

Actually, there is a few things that might strike us as questionable – though as we’ll see, the fact that something prompts a question doesn’t really tell us much, since some questions can be answered easily.  The first thing that we might want to question is that abortus are incinerated at all.  But it’s hard to see how this is really all that objectionable – not least because of the dearth of alternatives once the procedure has been carried out.  Of course, it might be that you object to abortion, and so all methods of disposal of the abortus are going to be suspect; I’ll come back to this.  For the time being, the point remains that if you’ve got an abortus, you need to get rid of it somehow.  Separating the abortus from everything else to be burned, and burning it in its own procedure, is ridiculous.  A burial ceremony is mawkish and more ridiculous.  And so on.

Maybe the problem is, then, that women were told that the abortus would be cremated rather than incinerated.  (Note, in passing, how in the Indy article they’re referred to as “mothers”, which seems to be poisoning the well a bit, since motherhood is supposed to be all virtue and light, and mothers care for their children – indeed, mothers have children; we’re nudged towards a “How-could-a-mother-do-this” kind of response by the tone of the piece.  But presumably at least some of these women didn’t want to be mothers, and didn’t see themselves as mothers, and didn’t have a child for the simple reason that a foetus is not a child.)  Well, that’s a linguistic problem – cremation is a form of incineration, but it doesn’t follow that incineration is always cremation – but it seems comparatively minor, and it’s not what the story is emphasising.  Is anyone seriously wronged by what is, at most, a terminological inexactitude?

But, actually, this brings us back to the Hobson’s choice question: what’s the alternative?  While, formally, I suppose that a woman might complain that she had been deceived by the use of the word “cremation” instead of “incineration”, and that this is a wrong, it’s natural enough to want to know what the alternatives would be: did the deceit make her decide to do something she wouldn’t have done otherwise?  The alleged deception would carry more weight if there was an alternative on offer; but if there isn’t, then we end up at the same place anyway.  Consent is not an issue when we’re dealing with inevitability.  So unless anyone is going to say that she wouldn’t have had a termination at all had she known that that’s how the foetus would be destroyed – a possible position, but not one I speculate anyone actually would take, or take seriously – then the possibility that anyone was seriously misled by a choice of words is merely formal.

At the same time, granted that some women will be terribly upset by the fact that their pregnancy has ended this way (some won’t, but some will: the procedure was used on naturally miscarried foetuses as well as deliberately aborted ones), I wonder if there’s a defence of the term “cremation” on the basis that it’s a kind of noble lie.  We can assume that whatever a person thinks of this method of disposing of an abortus given distance and a clear head, there’ll be at least some women who, at the time when it has to be disposed of, are quite emotionally vulnerable.  And in those circumstances, a word like “cremation” might well be softer than “incineration” – and, for that reason, the right one to use.

One other possibility, I guess, is that this is part of a general hostility to abortion: by generating worries about something associated with abortion, it’s possible to target abortion wholesale.  But then we – wherever we stand on the question – should turn our attention to abortion itself; even if you’re hostile, you’d still have to answer the question of what should be done with an abortus if not incineration.  And let’s not forget that you can support access to abortions while still thinking that they’re a bad thing: even those who support a liberal abortion law can quite coherently do so on the grounds that abortion is bad but often better than the alternative; if there were fewer pregnancies that ended in abortion (thanks to better contraception, sex eduction, support for the disabled and the parents of the disabled, and so on), I suspect that noone would be upset.  Anyway: the story concerns pregnancies that end by miscarriage as well as deliberate termination; so that seems to take us back to the noble lie point above.  If the story is generated by and to stir up hostility to abortion, it’s a cack-handed way of going about it.

So I’ll leave to one side the question of whether this story actually is motivated by a particular agenda on abortion; it might be, but it’s not really central.  I kind of think it’s much more likely that the people pushing the story have simply never thought too much about the logistics of abortion, and when the thought occurred to them to ask what happens to an abortus, they had a yuck response… and didn’t really think beyond that.  Or maybe they did think beyond that, but figured that a yuck-based story is worth telling anyway.

So we get to this: that generating a scandal out of not-very-much at all is simply what the media are for.

Having said all that, many of the comments under the story on the Indy site are reasonable; if you really want to despair for humanity, go to the Telegraph‘s version of the story, and look at the comments there.


*I’m struggling with the pluralisation of abortus; as far as I can tell, it’s 4th declension masculine, like manus, which means that the nominative singular and the nominative plural are the same.

  • Simon Jenkins

    I made the mistake of reading the Telegraph comments. I despair.