The bodies of 21 fetuses and infants, placed in plastic bags or wrapped in cotton gauze, have been found abandoned in a river in east China's Shandong Province, igniting controversy over how to properly dispose of deceased or aborted babies.
The bodies were found in the Guangfu river by residents in Jining on Monday, with eight having identification tags on their feet that listed their names, heights and dates of birth, the Jining Health Bureau said Tuesday. Authorities were still trying to identify the remaining 13 unidentified bodies Tuesday.
The news shocked locals and many who have read about the finding online, with anger being a common reaction to the disrespectful treatment of unborn or newborn human beings. Calls for an explanation were also widely heard.
Tags on the eight identified bodies indicated that they came from the hospital affiliated with Jijing Medical University. Among the eight, three died of serious illness after hospital treatment failed, the bureau said.
Video footage posted online showed the bodies covered in plastic waste bags and floating near the river shore. Local health authorities and police have launched an investigation into the dumping.
"The hospital medical staff involved have been suspended from their work," said Zhong Haitao, office manager for the Jining Health Bureau, according to a statement on the People's Daily website.
An official at the hospital, who only gave his surname as Li, told the Global Times that the hospital and relevant departments were investigating the case, and he confirmed that several workers had been suspended from work. He declined further comment.
In response to widespread public concern over whether the water quality of the Guangfu river had been degraded by the discarded bodies, local environmental authorities have assured that the water quality standards are sound and people's access to safe drinking water won't be affected because it comes from underground sources for the residents of Jijing and surrounding areas.
A report by the Beijing News said the bodies had started decomposing, making it nearly impossible to tell their age. It said the tallest one was around 60 cm (about 2 feet). One body was even placed inside a plastic wrapping labeled "medical waste."
Zhong told the Beijing News that the initial investigation showed that these babies were probably dumped as medical waste after dying from diseases or abortion. Dead babies, Zhong said, are classified as medical waste according to relevant laws.
That classification is also receiving heavy criticism. Additionally, there have been legal rulings in China to support the classification of dead infants as medical waste.
Medical waste, according to the Catalogue for Classification of Medical Waste, mainly comprises infectious waste carrying pathogenic microorganisms that could lead to contagious diseases; pathological medical waste such as human bodies and animal bodies for medical experiment; wastes that could injure people, such as discarded needles; expired or polluted drugs; and chemical waste.
But medical workers in different hospitals gave the Global Times different explanations of how hospitals treat dead babies.
Wang Zhaomin, a retired head nurse of a hospital in Yichun of north China's Heilongjiang, told the Global Times that the normal practice is to send the dead babies to a crematorium.
However, in real practice, when parents want to take the bodies, the hospital hands them over, out of respect, she said.
Some parents bury the dead babies the same way they treat other deceased family members. Others may bring the bodies into the mountains, a traditional practice to drive off evil spirits that they believe possessed a baby with defects or illnesses.
Wang Jishan, vice president of the Peking University People's Hospital, told the Global Times that the hospital generally sends bodies to crematoriums.
He said that even if bodies of babies are categorized as "medical waste," the hospital must strictly follow rules to dispose of them by paying specialized agencies authorized by the government.
He speculated that the hospital in Jining may have given the "medical waste" to unqualified agencies, which discarded the bodies in the river.
"This is not only against the law, but also morally unacceptable," he said.
According to regulations regarding medical waste disposal, which were issued in 2004 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, human tissue, organs and dead fetuses are recommended to be incinerated at crematoriums.
In recent years, however, Wang's hospital has given dead babies to their parents, who would cremate them later. The practice is done in large part to avoid legal disputes between the hospital and parents, both of whom have, in the past, claimed ownership of the deceased.
A Beijing couple sued the Beijing Aerospace General Hospital in 2005 for dumping their son's body at random without notifying the couple. The mother had given birth to the dead baby by Caesarean section.
The hospital argued that dead fetuses should be treated as pathological medical waste and dealt with by medical institutions.
The Fengtai People's Court ordered the hospital to pay 2,000 yuan in compensation to the couple. The court ruled that a dead fetus doesn't have a legal personality, so it doesn't enjoy civil rights, which means that it can't be treated as a corpse, but the fetus could be seen as property that belongs to the parents.
The ruling was made before China's Property Law was issued.
Feng Yujun, a law professor at the People's University of China, told the Global Times that the controversy is related to whether dead bodies should be defined as property.
"Human body parts, such as blood and hearts, can be seen as property, but corpses should not be treated as property," he said, citing national law.
Corpses should also be sent to crematoriums or handled properly to prevent the spread of diseases, he said.
"The dumping of dead babies constitutes a disrespect to life," he said. "The matter is a combination of legal and moral issues."
A report by Law & Life magazine in 2006 described hospitals' practice in the treatment of babies' corpses.
Dead fetuses are stored in refrigerators and relatives must stipulate whether the fetus be claimed by the family or dealt with by the hospital, the magazine said, adding that, without the parents' approval, fetuses should not be dealt with at random.