What happens to the remains of aborted babies? Here’s what we know

DC babies case Randall Terry, spokesman for the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, a pro-life group, speaks at a press conference on April 5, 2022. The group says it obtained the remains of more than 100 aborted babies, which included five babies the group says were the victims of late-term abortions, from a biohazard waste disposal company, a charge the company has denied. | Katie Yoder/CNA

The revelation of the bodies of 115 aborted babies, allegedly discarded by a Washington, D.C. abortion clinic in late March and intercepted by anti-abortion activists, has again highlighted the often undignified treatment of aborted children. 

At least 1,725 abortions took place in the U.S. every day of 2019, the latest year that government figures are available. What happens to the remains of those babies? Here’s what we know: 

The absence of regulations in many states means aborted babies can be treated as medical waste. But several states mandate cremation or burial. 

Reports abound of aborted babies being found discarded in dumpsters, in landfills, and even flushed down toilets. There have even been reports of fetal remains being incinerated along with other medical waste to produce electricity. 

“Without regulations, medical practitioners are free to dispose of human fetal remains by incineration with medical waste, by dumping in landfills, and even by burning the remains to generate energy,” a legal brief filed by Americans United for Life (AUL) notes. 

Many states do regulate the disposition of human fetal remains in some fashion, but the laws are “often archaic and scattered throughout a variety of state codes, regulations, and statutes,” according to a 2016 paper from the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute. “Often, a dedicated effort must be made to find each related state law,” CLI notes. 

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah all have laws on the books requiring that aborted babies be cremated or buried. 

Notably, Indiana’s law on the matter was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019. In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court cited a previous decision that states have a "legitimate interest in proper disposal of fetal remains."

The federal government, and many states, have laws prohibiting the sale and purchase of human fetal remains.

While federal law allows compensation for fetal tissue to be used for research purposes, the amount of money received from clinics is not allowed to be of "valuable consideration," and should only cover the costs of transportation and preservation.

Several states have legislation that prohibit entirely the sale, transfer, or the use of fetal remains for research. These include Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Wyoming. 

There’s no federal law regulating the dignified treatment of fetal remains, though a bill is under consideration. 

The bill, introduced in 2019 by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, would require all abortion providers to offer women who obtain abortions the option to take possession of the aborted baby for cremation or burial. 

If the woman chooses to release the baby’s body to the abortion provider, the abortion provider would be required, within seven days of the abortion, to provide for the cremation or burial of the remains in accordance with state laws regarding the disposal of human remains, the bill states. 

Abortion providers would also need to report the number and gestational age of the abortions they perform to the HHS, the total number of babies released to patients, and the total number buried or cremated. 

The bill is currently in the hands of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

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