Are Fetuses and Embryos Being Used to Generate Power?

In May 2022, as the United States reeled from a leaked revelation that the Supreme Court was planning to overturn abortion rights, long-debunked conspiracy theories and rumors once again took hold in the fevered imaginations of the American far right.

One such conspiracy theory merged facts with fantasy on May 19 2022, when representative Catherine Glenn Foster from the nonprofit group Americans United for Life testified to this purported practice during congressional testimony.

In the clip, Foster paints a frightening and disturbing picture which has many familiar elements to debunkers and researchers of the far right:

….Human persons from their earliest days, poisoned in the womb and dismembered, torn, limb from limb. Bodies thrown in medical waste bins, and in places like Washington, DC burned to power the lights of the city’s homes and streets. Let that image sink in with you for a moment. The next time you turn on a light, think of the incinerators, think of what we’re doing to ourselves, so callously and so numbly….

This is not true. However, in true disinformation form, it pulls elements from both real life and antisemitic fantasy, taking the real-world, noncontroversial practice of incinerating of medical waste, mixing in past events and rumors, and infusing it with elements of blood libel, in which Jewish people are rumored to use the bodies or body parts of non-Jewish people for various purposes.

The first part formed the basis of a scandal that erupted in 2014 in the UK, when reports appeared that medical waste containing fetuses and embryos was being burned and in some cases used to heat hospitals:

British health officials are responding to a news program’s report that accuses some hospitals of incinerating aborted and miscarried fetuses, in some cases as part of a system for heating the facilities.

The TV news program Dispatches on Channel 4 in the U.K. reports that 10 National Health Service (NHS) hospital trusts have admitted burning the remains as “clinical waste” alongside trash, while two other facilities disposed of the remains in incinerators that generate power for heating, multiple British news organizations including the BBC and the Telegraph reported.

At least one of the two facilities said that the conversion to waste for heating was done by a private company outside their purview:

One hospital cited in the report, Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk, was said to have incinerated more than 1,100 fetal remains between 2011 and 2013 in a “waste to energy” plant operated by a private contractor. The remains were reportedly transferred there from another hospital.

Ipswich Hospital Trust denied its involvement, and told the Telegraph it was concerned to discover that fetal remains from another hospital had been incinerated on its site.

“The Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust does not incinerate fetal remains,” said a spokesperson.

Addenbrooke Hospital in Cambridge was also cited for incinerating 797 fetuses at its “waste to energy” plant.

After the 2014 story about UK hospitals ran, it prompted investigations and a statement from the Human Tissues Authority:

We will act on this immediately. We already advise hospitals that incineration may not be appropriate for fetal remains, and will now go further in light of the information we have been given, and make our standards for hospitals clearer.

There was precedent for both the practice of burning abortions and miscarriages as medical waste — and for changing it in favor of a more humane response. Two years before that controversy, hospitals in Scotland had pledged to stop burning abortions and miscarriages as clinical waste, citing an effort to “recognise the sensitivity around early pregnancy loss”:

The move will also give parents who have suffered a miscarriage and to women who have had an abortion the choice on how they would like the remains to be disposed of.

Women who have suffer the loss of an unborn baby will be given sensitively written information on the options they have, including making their own funeral arrangements.

The move follows a two-year review into how hospitals dealt with the remains. The previous guidelines were 20 years old and had advised health boards that incineration was still acceptable.

By the time the story made it to the United States, it was already canon among anti-abortion disinformation purveyors, who make no distinction between “medical waste,” embryos, and actual babies, that abortions were being used to power facilities all over the United States:

The Health Ministry disclosed in an email to the B.C. Catholic, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, that “biomedical waste” sent to the U.S. for incineration includes “human tissue, such as surgically removed cancerous tissue, amputated limbs, and fetal tissue.”

“The ministry understands that some is transferred to Oregon. There it is incinerated in a waste-to-energy plant,” the email read, LifeSiteNews reports.

The light-on-nuance story was strengthened tremendously — as stories like these so often are — when it was subsequently melded with the antisemitic canard of blood libel over time by those same disinformation purveyors. The themes of that particular narrative center around Jewish people trafficking or kidnapping babies or children in order to use their blood or organs for various purposes:

Since ancient times, Jews have been falsely accused of killing gentiles for ritual purposes. In Hellenistic Egypt, this was sometimes accompanied by accusations of cannibalism. In Medieval Europe, beginning in the Twelfth Century, it was often accompanied by accusations that Jews used their victim’s blood to bake matzah for the Jewish holiday of Passover. Historically, these false allegations have frequently been followed by anti-Jewish riots and mass murders. Today, echoes of this blood libel can be heard in allegations that Jews, especially in Israel, kill young gentile children for military or political purposes or in service of genocide. In one contemporary variation, Israelis are accused of kidnapping Palestinian children at night, murdering them, and selling their organs for profit. Variations of the child-murder libel remain prevalent in some parts of the world.

In this case, the accusations center around environmentalism and “green energy,” a connection that the far right is anxious to make in order to advance further conspiracy theory narratives.

That disinformation was also peddled on anti-abortion site Live Action in April 2022, when anti-abortion activists were arrested and charged for blocking an abortion facility, and several fetuses removed from one activist’s home:

One of the speakers at the press conference, Missy Smith, stated that Curtis Bay Energy is burning the bodies of aborted babies (along with medical waste) to create energy for Baltimore. “This means, tragically, that they receive, transfer, and burn the corpses of aborted babies to make electricity for the households and businesses of the Baltimore area,” Smith said. “If you live in the Baltimore area, you must know that aborted babies have been burned to keep your lights on and your house warm. We call on Curtis Bay Energy to end this barbaric practice, and confirm publicly that they have done so.”

Curtis Bay Energy denied the claims, and no proof was provided by the activists.

In any case, while it is possible for embryos and fetuses to be classified as medical waste and incinerated, and sometimes as part of generating electricity, rumors of harvesting babies in order to toss them into bonfires wholesale are untrue.

Per the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, DC gets its power mainly from solar and natural gas; about 17 percent comes from “biomass,” which is largely generated not from fetuses nor embryos, but from a renewable resource that humans produce in large quantities — perhaps some more than others.

5/19/2022, 1:20 PM: This page has been updated. You can read the original here. -bb