Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 23, 1992
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 medical waste?

"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 Alessandra.

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 dehumanizing."

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 mother.

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 District Attorney.

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 center.

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." home page   
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