Burn baby burn!

Outrage is a tricky thing. The worldview a reporter brings to the coverage of a story, such as loathing or disgust, will color his account of the incident. For an American tabloid or British redtop we expect bias, sensationalism and outrage — faux or genuine.

But when should a reporter for a quality, mainstream newspaper seek out sources who can debate why an act is or is not evil?

A story dated March 24, 2014 in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals” prompts me to ask, “what’s all the fuss about?”

The lede states:

The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat. Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’

The article summarizes the findings of a Channel 4 documentary produced by Dispatches entitled Exposing Hospital Heartache set for broadcast on March 24, summarizing its findings, and offering commentary from government health ministers. In addition to the Health Minister’s comment that “this practice is totally unacceptable,” we learn the NHS medical director has written to all state hospitals ending the practice. The Chief Inspector of Hospitals is quoted as saying:

I am disappointed trusts may not be informing or consulting women and their families. This breaches our standard on respecting and involving people who use services and I’m keen for Dispatches to share their evidence with us.

The issue then, according to the Chief Inspector of Hospitals, is one of respect.

Abortion in the UK is legal. The fetuses burned by the hospitals are not human beings according to the laws of Parliament and all right thinking people. Should not the NHS be lauded for its pioneering efforts at recycling and reducing Britain’s “carbon footprint”?

The bad act under discussion according to the chief inspector of hospitals is not the incinerating of dead babies but the disrespect shown to NHS clients — offending the sentiments of the tissue donors — or parents.

The assumption that under girds this article is that something terrible has happened, but we cannot identity the horror. Naming the evil is forbidden (by political correctness, by an earnest belief in the moral goodness of abortion, by a rejection of Judeo-Christian morality) and in its place we have outrage over poor customer service.

Is a fetus a baby? Or is it a lump of tissue? The law in Britain and the U.S. tells us that it is a lump of tissue. In the moral universe that permits such thinking the recycling of biological waste should be celebrated. For those who follow a different path, the incineration of babies to heat hospitals is but the compounding of an evil — akin to the Nazis making lampshades from the skins of murdered Jews with interesting tattoos.

Which takes us back to my opening journalistic question: How should a newspaper report on evil when its audience is sharply divided over the definition of evil?

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  • Brent R. Orrell

    Interesting question at the end. I’d say from the reaction that the agnosticism over the nature of the act of burning the remains of babies for heat is much more apparent than real. The reason this story is so sensational is that it taps into a deep, unspoken agreement that real desecration has occurred in the NHS Trusts (quite a name for these hospital consortia under the circumstances.) The real trick is to get people to think through their revulsion and be able to articulate in terms that venture beyond “mere” disgust or the notion that if the parent(s) had signed a waiver all would have been just fine. Abortion is one of those things that is ok only in theory. The facts of it are always deeply offensive for which we can be deeply grateful to God.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Powered by a forsaken child, indeed. While you used the furnaces at a Nazi concentration camp as the illustration, a still from “The Matrix” would b doubly appropriate based on its storyline on enslavement, treating humans as batteries and liquifying the dead to feed others. Insightful read.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I have found that the media handles bioethical concerns oddly. Some years ago the UK Telegraph had a story on “snow babies” – embryos left over from IVF in cryogenic storage – one couple brought the vials home and kept them for years in a kitchen drawer. The embryos of course perished, probably on the way home from the clinic. But the couple planned on one day burying them and planting a tree over them. The woman said at one point, “I wasn’t happy with any of the choices,” meaning discarding them or donating them for research or adoption, “I realise they were just a bunch of cells. But it was their potential; they had the potential to become children.” Why the natural inclination to respect the potential of “just a bunch of cells”? One of those statements isn’t true, after all – either the potential is irrelevant or they are not “just” a bunch of cells. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/7948027/IVF-the-hidden-story-of-Britains-snowbabies.html) Sometimes it seems that statements like, “I realize they were just a bunch of cells,” are a way of trying to convince ourselves of the permissibility of what we have done or plan to do. So much in bioethics has become an exercise in coming up with rationales to justify an intended course of action to placate or silence naysayers – and one important naysayer is the conscience. The media seem baffled by it. But ignoring a thing is just another way of convincing onself of something. And the media conspicuously ignore it.

    • Sam Otero

      Indeed, as cells go, we are all a bunch of cells, whether embryonic or elderly. At early foetal stage there are already billions of them, and these cells are increasing at the rate of millions per second. Is there a threshold of numbers of cells after which we can no longer dehumanise something growing based on human DNA? If so, these cells number into values that most calculators cannot easily display.


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