The discovery at Saint Vincent de Paul hospital of jars of preserved "anatomical pieces" - aborted foetuses and babies, as well as the body of a child which was three days old when it died - was made public on Tuesday by the Health Minister, Xavier Bertrand. But claims by public health officials yesterday that the store at the hospital was an "administrative mistake" fuelled suspicions of a cover-up.
Mr Bertrand was clearly shocked when he announced that some of the "pieces" preserved at Saint Vincent de Paul were 25 years old. He confirmed that parents had not been informed of the practice, which had continued until this year. He added that French law clearly stipulates rapid incineration or burial for embryos, foetuses or babies born dead or aborted because of malformations or ill-health.
Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, has announced two formal inquiries and a criminal investigation has been launched.
The secretary general of Paris hospitals, Jean-Marc Boulanger, claimed only five people had access to the chamber containing the "pieces" and said that he did not understand the reason for the practice. "One would tend to think of this kind of situation existing in relation to research," M. Boulanger said. "But research is normally organised. Yet we are faced here with a phenomenon that was not organised. There was no reason to preserve these foetuses. We do not understand."
Three of the 351 cases were of children who had survived a full pregnancy term and died shortly after birth, he said. "The rules are simple. If the pregnancy has not exceeded 22 weeks, the foetus must be incinerated. Beyond 22 weeks, or in the case of a stillborn child, burial or incineration are offered. But in all cases nothing should be done without the mother's knowledge."
The gruesome discovery at Saint Vincent de Paul was made thanks to the perseverance of a former patient, Caroline Lemoine. "Three years ago, I had a pregnancy medically terminated in a hospital outside Paris after 22 weeks and four days," she said. "My amniocentesis had shown a lethal abnormality in my son.
"This year, as part of my grieving process, I felt I wanted to know what had become of his remains. Had he been cremated as promised? I knew he had been sent to Saint Vincent de Paul for autopsy and I wanted to know the date of his cremation."
She contacted the hospital in May and, after several weeks, staff told her they had found the body in the hospital morgue. "I was told there had been many administrative changes and some carelessness for which they were very sorry. He was finally cremated on 13 July," said Ms Lemoine, who has started a support group, Petit Emile, for women dealing with the trauma of termination.
While there has been widespread public revulsion, a number of French doctors and scientists have publicly said they are not surprised at the discovery. Guy-Marie Cousin, president of the association of French obstetricians, said he suspected there were preserved remains of babies in all of France's 22 teaching hospitals. "The practice is as old as medicine itself. It is crucial for research and teaching," he said.
Axel Kahn, a genetics expert and member of the French Academy of Sciences, backed him up: "Saint Vincent de Paul specialises in genetically-transmitted child illnesses. It is likely that the hospital needed tissue for scientific research. Since the adoption of the French bioethics law in 1994, it has become much more difficult to access tissue. It seems that at Saint Vincent de Paul, old practices had remained in force," he said.
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