Grisly symbol of
an emotional debate
BUFFALO - They call her Tia. She
is 9 1/2 inches long, weighs 14 ounces and was named by the Operation
Rescue leaders who use her to symbolize the human lives lost to abortion.
But since police confiscated the female fetus at an anti-abortion
demonstration here on Tuesday, Tia has come to symbolize the very question
at the heart of the emotional abortion battle.
Is Tia a baby or a fetus? A human being or fetal tissue?
Which is to say: Is Tia to be given a proper burial? Or disposed of as
"It's not entirely clear what it is yet," said Shelley B.
Mayer, an assistant New York attorney general who is investigating whether
anti-abortion activists broke any laws by using Tia as a prop.
The fetus was turned over to the Erie County coroner, who could not say
how the fetus died - whether it was the result of an abortion, as
Operation Rescue leaders claim, or of a miscarriage.
The autopsy also could not give a date of death, other than indicating
it was "quite a long time ago," said Chief of Detectives Angelo
Much of Tia's origins are surrounded in mystery. Operation Rescue
leaders, who apparently have displayed the fetus previously and kept it
preserved in a container of formaldehyde, said they obtained Tia from a
Buffalo pathologist whom they would not name.
The Rev. Robert L. Schenck, who was charged with disorderly conduct for
holding the fetus in front of abortion-rights activists, said at a news
conference on Monday that Tia was 23 weeks in gestational age - a
second-trimester fetus, although he did not use that term.
"She's a baby," he said. "Fetus is a little
Operation Rescue leaders, who handed the fetus from one to another at
the news conference on Monday and posed for photographers with Tia cradled
in their palms, said they had been unable to get Tia buried because they
did not have a death certificate.
When Tia was taken from Mr. Schenck the next day, he called to police:
"All that we ask is that she not be destroyed because we have been
given custody of her for burial."
Tia's eventual fate now is in the hands of the coroner's office, where
Tia must legally remain in a refrigerator for up to five months to allow
the mother to claim the body. This also allows time for county social
workers to investigate whether the fetus was disposed of illegally.
The medical examiner's autopsy provided little illumination, other than
to confirm that Tia indeed was a real fetus, not a fake - some reporters
had expressed skepticism. But the coroner said that Tia was not African
American as the Operation Rescue leaders claimed, but rather white;
formaldehyde had darkened the skin color.
The postmortem also determined the gestational age of the fetus was not
23 weeks, as Operation Rescue asserted, but 20 weeks - about a month shy
of being a "viable" fetus, or one that can live outside the
That age put it right at the legal edge of what New York law defines as
the beginning of human life, at least in terms of how the remains should
be dealt with.
"If the fetus has reached 20 weeks, then it has to be buried or
cremated," said Therese Wincott, a spokesperson for the Erie County
If the fetus is less developed, then it is dealt with as medical waste.
"It's a bit complicated," said Mayer, the assistant state
attorney general. The difference is important to prosecutors, who must
decide whether Mr. Schenck violated health laws dealing with proper
burials or environmental laws dealing with the proper disposal of waste.
But to some, the legal distinction is moot.
"The fetus is not an easy thing to see or stomach, and maybe
that's what they intended," said Mayer. "It's offensive whenever
anybody displays remains."
Some experts expressed skepticism that the fetus was obtained from
Buffalo, where second-trimester abortions are done at hospitals and where
pathologists have strict controls over the handling of remains.
"I can't imagine that a specimen would just walk off from a
pathology department," said an obstetrician at a Buffalo medical
Mr. Schenck said last night that Operation Rescue is "in
possession of other aborted remains" and "will continue to use
these babies as God gives them to us."