Jeff Jacoby

Jonathan Swift was being satirical when he penned his "modest proposal" that destitute Irish parents alleviate their financial woes by selling their children as delicacies for rich landowners. He assured his readers that 1-year-olds are delicious, "whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled."

That was satire circa 1729. Imagine what Swift at his most scathing would write today — say, a 21st-century "modest proposal" to use unborn fetuses for renewable energy.

But this — from a prominent story last week in The Telegraph, a British newspaper — wasn't satire:

"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 [National Health Service] trusts have admitted burning fetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in 'waste-to-energy' plants which generate power for heat. . . . At least 15,500 fetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the last two years alone, Channel 4's 'Dispatches' discovered."

At Addenbrooke's, a hospital in Cambridge, England, the fetuses from 797 miscarriages and abortions were burned in a facility designed to generate electricity and heat. Releases given to the women by the hospital had specified only that the remains would be "cremated." Elsewhere, according to the Channel 4 broadcast that broke the story, hospital staff were more candid. After suffering a miscarriage, 35-year-old Cathryn Hurley recalled in an interview, she asked the nurse what would happen to the baby she had just lost. She was told it would be incinerated with the rest of the day's clinical waste.

"That was really difficult to hear," said Hurley, her voice trembling. "Because to me, it wasn't the day's waste. It was my baby. It would have been nice to have some kind of choice about it — to, kind of, mark that baby's life — and there was nothing within the hospital that gave us that opportunity."

The exposé set off a furor, and British officials quickly condemned the practice. Clearly, the thought of burning unborn babies to heat hospitals horrifies many people. But just as clearly it doesn't horrify everyone, or there would have been no scandal to expose.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for