Medical waste company denies giving fetuses to antiabortion activists

Antiabortion activists said Tuesday they obtained five fetuses from a medical waste disposal driver who was outside a Washington abortion clinic, an assertion the waste disposal company denies.

Plainclothes officers removed the fetuses from a Southeast apartment where one of the activists was staying. DC police are still working to determine how the fetuses were obtained and whether any laws were broken.

Police on Tuesday would not comment on the activists’ account. They said previously they were investigating the actions of activists as well as whether proper procedures were followed in disposal of the remains. City health officials did not respond to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, 23 congressional Republicans sent a letter to DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III that, in addition to making several requests, demanded a “thorough investigation” into the five fetuses antiabortion activists say they found, and asked for a response by close of business Wednesday.

Lauren Handy, 28, and Terrisa Bukovinac, 41, who are part of a group called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, spoke at a crowded news conference inside a DC hotel Tuesday. They were flanked by some key figures in the antiabortion movement, including Randall Terry, founder of the radical group Operation Rescue. The women said that on March 25 they walked up to the driver of a Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services truck outside Washington Surgi-Clinic, one of a small number in the country that performs abortions later in pregnancies.

The clinic, in Foggy Bottom, has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

The activists said they asked the driver if he had picked up any boxes from the clinic, which is one of multiple medical offices in the same building. After the driver said he had, the activists said, they asked what would happen to him if they took one of the boxes he had just loaded into the truck.

The driver, Bukovinac said, then asked what they would do with the remains inside. After they told him they would give the remains a funeral and bury them, the activists said the driver gave them a box. They said the box contained more than 100 sets of fetal remains, a claim police would not comment on.

The medical waste services company, in a statement, said that on March 25 one of its employees “took custody of three packages” from the clinic and delivered all of them to the company’s incineration facility. “At no time did the Curtis Bay employee hand over any of these packages to the PAAU or other third party, and any allegations made otherwise are false,” the statement read.

In its “special waste management plan customer guide,” the company says that it is “explicitly prohibited under its operating permit, issued by the state, from processing certain types of waste at our controlled treatment facilities,” including fetal remains.

At the news conference, the activists shared photos of a box, which had a logo for Curtis Bay Energy, the incineration company, and a bright orange “biohazard” sticker on one side, and a white sticker on another side that read: “Generator : Washington Surgi Center.”

A request for comment from Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services about the photos with the incineration company logo was not immediately returned Tuesday.

The activists said they arranged a naming ceremony, funeral and burial for more than 100 fetuses at an undisclosed location. They said they also photographed and videotaped five fetuses that looked the largest and stored them in the refrigerator at Handy’s Southeast apartment. She said while the fetuses were there, she slept elsewhere. (She has since moved out.)

The activists said they want authorities to evaluate whether any of the fetuses may have been aborted in violation of federal laws, which restrict when a pregnant person can have an abortion procedure known as intact dilation and extraction and extend legal rights to fetuses that survive abortions.

At the news conference, the women said they tried unsuccessfully for three days to get a medical professional to examine the fetuses before turning to the city medical examiner. They said they reached out to an attorney in California who has represented the antiabortion Center for Medical Progress, which secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood employees. That attorney then sent an email about the remains to a generic email inbox at the medical examiner’s office and to a supervisor in the homicide unit, according to DC officials. Alerted to the possible presence of the remains at Handy’s apartment, police went to collect them. DC police on Tuesday declined to comment further on the case.

District officials said the medical examiner has no plans at this time to autopsy the remains because they appear to have been aborted in accordance with DC law. The District and seven states do not have specific laws prohibiting abortion after a certain point in pregnancy. The Justice Department on Tuesday declined to comment on whether it was investigating, or would investigate, the group’s allegation that the fetuses may have been aborted in violation of federal laws.

DC Medical Examiner has no plans to autopsy fetuses removed from antiabortion activist’s home, officials say

In their letter to Bowser and Contee, lawmakers said “as Members of Congress, we have an obligation to conduct oversight over the District of Columbia.” They said any plan not to perform autopsies “is completely unacceptable.” They also demanded autopsies on the fetuses and asked if city officials “will commit to properly and respectfully burying each child?”

Jane Turner, a retired professor at St. Louis University School of Medicine and a medical examiner for 18 years in St. Louis, said an autopsy “would not likely determine whether the fetuses were live born.” Turner said that, depending on how the fetuses were stored, either by the clinic after the abortion or by the activists, there are risks of postmortem contamination that might cloud any determination.

Handy was among nine people indicted last week on federal civil rights charges for traveling to Washington in 2020, blocking access to a reproductive health center and streaming it on Facebook. Among the charges they face are violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act or FACE Act, which prohibits physically obstructing or using the threat of force to intimidate or interfere with a person seeking reproductive health services.

The FBI arrested Handy last Wednesday, the same day police showed up at her apartment to retrieve the fetuses. On Monday, she pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. Prosecutors did not seek to detain her.

Handy and Bukovinac are longtime antiabortion activists and work together at Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising — a small, relatively new organization that says it advocates not only against abortion but also for progressive positions on race, LGBTQ rights and poverty.

In early March, the two were among a group of antiabortion activists who took photos through a window in a door of a locked cold room at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The cold room contains specimens of fetuses with birth defects and other anomalies donated to the school since the 1960s. They posted the images on social media. Handy has also said in Facebook posts that she has climbed into dumpsters outside clinics and has posted ultrasound images that she found in them. In an interview, Handy said when she has tried to procure remains from clinics in the past, she usually found only medical pads or tissue that wasn’t clearly a fetus.

The activists said in an interview they had not handled such extensive fetal remains until last week. Looking for someone who had experience with them, they reached out to Terry, who was known for wielding pictures of fetuses and chaining himself to hospital beds when he was with Operation Rescue. Terry, they said, gave them instructions — what materials to get, and how to be proper “stewards to the children.”

Antiabortion activist who kept 5 fetuses pleads not guilty in DC case

During the interview, the activists shared a video of what they said was them opening a box of the remains in Handy’s apartment. In it, Handy is seen lifting a fetus out of the container.

They had planned to release a fuller account of how they got the remains at the Tuesday news conference. But on Friday, Live Action, an antiabortion group based in Arlington with which they had shared images of the fetuses, acted on its own, editing and releasing some of the footage from Handy’s apartment on social media.

Antiabortion activists have long targeted Washington Surgi-Clinic and its owner. Both were defendants in a 2011 medical malpractice lawsuit filed after a patient who had gone to the clinic to have a stillborn fetus removed died. The case did not go to trial, court records show.

Melissa Fowler, chief program officer for National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers based in the District, said, “Washington Surgi-Clinic is a NAF member in good standing. NAF member clinics comply with state and federal laws that regulate medical tissue for all health care providers to ensure that it is handled safely, appropriately, and respectfully.”

Abortion access advocates said they see the fetus allegations as a distortion of fact aimed at generating social media fodder at a key time. Abortion regulations are being rolled back across the country, and aU.S. Supreme Court decision is upcoming in a case that legal experts say poses the most significant threat to Roe v. wade in a generation. The activists’ story, they say, highlights a slanted focus on terminations later in pregnancy that make up less than 1 percent of all abortions performed each year in the United States.

“It’s another tactic to intimidate abortion providers, to intimate patients who need this kind of care,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of Pro-Choice Virginia. Even though at least two dozen states are poised to ban abortion if the US Supreme Court overturns Roe later this year, Keene said, antiabortion activists like Handy want to focus on undermining access in places that still have it.

Directors of local clinics refer to Handy as a singular, steady, extreme presence at their facilities.

“I was absolutely delighted to hear Handy was charged and arrested,” said Rosemary Codding, who in 2002 founded Falls Church Healthcare Center, a clinic in Northern Virginia. Handy has protested at her clinic and entered to hand out roses, unsolicited, to patients, along with pleas and prayers not to terminate their pregnancies.

Handy will yell, “You’re already a mother!” said a former clinic escort at Planned Parenthood in Northeast who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation. “While she celebrates the few moms, women, or people who decided to carry their children to term, she has pretty much no remorse for the countless number of people whose abortions were made much more traumatic because of her presence.”

Fredrick Kunkle, Tom Jackman, Ellie Silverman, Matt Zapotosky and Monika Mathur contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment