A battle to bury remains of the 'Gosnell babies'

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Linwood, Delco, where groupsburied remains of 5,000 abortions. A memorial service is set there for Sept. 14.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Linwood, Delco, where groupsburied remains of 5,000 abortions. A memorial service is set there for Sept. 14.
Posted: August 26, 2013

Forty-seven fetuses discovered three years ago in Kermit Gosnell's freezer are at the center of an emotional dispute over whether foes of abortion can claim the remains for burial.

Now that the abortionist is behind bars for life and his clinic closed, and prosecutors no longer need the remains for evidence, an alliance of antiabortion groups is pressing Philadelphia Medical Examiner Sam Gulino to give them the remains.

"The Gosnell babies" is the name bestowed on the fetal remains - some of them only body parts - by abortion opponents committed to keeping the notorious case alive in the public consciousness.

Gulino says his office does not release remains to "unrelated third parties." He has assured the groups - Priests for Life, Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, Christian Defense Coalition, and others - that the remains would get a "proper and respectful disposition."

That is the same answer he gave Archbishop Charles J. Chaput when the prelate made the offer before Gosnell's trial.

The groups are not satisfied.

"We're doing this to try to bring dignity to their deaths," said Michael McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania and an antiabortion activist for decades. He said the group would pay the city for the cost of burial.

"Financially, they should be willing to do it," said McMonagle, citing the city's money woes. "I think it's clear that city officials don't want to appear they're taking a pro-life side in abortion politics."

To pressure the city, the groups have tried publicizing their offer. On July 19, they conducted a prayer vigil and protest at the Medical Examiner's Office in West Philadelphia.

They hinted at suing, consulted lawyers, and decided against it.

Now, after unsuccessful dealings between their lawyer and a city lawyer for Gulino, the groups are returning to the street.

On Sunday, McMonagle said, the groups will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. for a rally at Drexel University's Bossone Research Center at 3140 Market St. Afterward, they will take a candlelight walk to Gosnell's old clinic for a prayer service.

On Monday, McMonagle said, the groups plan to meet again, at 11 a.m. outside the Medical Examiner's Office, for another protest and prayer.

Gulino spokesman James Garrow said abortion politics had nothing to do with not releasing the Gosnell remains to the antiabortion groups.

"Basically, we're just following the protocols of our office," he said.

That was disputed in a July 18 letter to Gulino from Catherine Glenn Foster, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, of Scottsdale, Ariz., which is backing the groups.

Foster cited the "FAQ" section of the medical examiner's website, which says: "Anyone, including friends and neighbors, may claim a body three days after the date of pronouncement of death."

Foster wrote that "the groups we represent are those friends and neighbors. We write on behalf of Philadelphia residents who are heartbroken at the thought of murdered children being abandoned to a resting place just as cruel and lonely as their all-too-brief lives."

In an Aug. 5 reply to Foster, Chief Deputy City Solicitor Lynda H. Moore wrote that the groups did not "have legal standing to represent the citizens of Philadelphia."

Garrow said that, absent family, an unrelated third party must show some connection with the deceased in life - not just an objection to the way they died.

He said the office would hold unclaimed remains for 10 years, although they would be cremated once the staff exhausted efforts to find relatives. After 10 years, Garrow said, cremated remains are buried at local cemeteries.

"Ten years is absolutely appalling and tragic," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of Christian Defense Coalition. "The whole nation was transfixed by the Gosnell trial."

In May, Gosnell, 72, was convicted of murder for killing infants born alive during illegal late-term abortions. During the trial, the jury heard gruesome testimony of abortions performed by untrained workers in an unsanitary clinic that held the remains of aborted fetuses and fetal body parts.

The Medical Examiner's Office last released cremated remains for burial in 2010 - 1,500 people who died before 2000. The burial at Laurel Hill Cemetery on Kelly Drive cost $20,000.

If city officials are unmoved by the offers of Priests for Life founder Father Frank Pavone, McMonagle, and others, abortion foes say the idea is not new.

Leslie Palma-Simoncek, spokeswoman for Pavone's Staten Island, N.Y., group, said 36 U.S. cemeteries have allowed antiabortion groups to bury retrieved abortion remains.

The cemeteries are part of a National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children program created by Priests for Life, Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, and Pro-Life Action League. There will be memorial services at 3 p.m. Sept. 14 at each cemetery, Palma-Simoncek said.

One of those cemeteries is Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Linwood, Delaware County, where remains from 5,000 abortions are buried.

According to the Day of Remembrance website, the remains were retrieved by antiabortion groups from the loading dock of a Northbrook, Ill., lab, where they were sent for disposal. The remains were turned over to unidentified "pro-lifers in Pennsylvania who provided them with a humane burial."

The prospect of waiting 10 years to bury the "Gosnell babies" has left abortion foes fuming, but not defeated.

Palma-Simoncek said Pavone has vowed to conduct a funeral even without the remains.

"But if you're asking if we'll wait for 10 years," Palma-Simoncek added, "the answer is absolutely."


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joeslobo.

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