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Q&A: Ohio's rules for fetal tissue disposal

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Posted at 8:59 AM, Dec 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-22 13:18:05-05

State lawmakers, officials and a federal judge have been taking a closer look at Ohio's regulations for fetal tissue disposal, following the state attorney general's investigation into three Planned Parenthood affiliates that provide abortions.

The review found no evidence that the group made money from aborted fetuses, as videos from anti-abortion activists had alleged of clinics in other states. Instead, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine's report criticized Planned Parenthood for disposing of fetal remains in landfills. Planned Parenthood calls the alleged wrongdoing "inflammatory" and says it follows Ohio law.

Here are answers to some key questions about Ohio's disposal rules for fetal tissue:

HOW DOES OHIO REGULATE THE DISPOSAL OF ABORTED FETAL REMAINS?

For about 40 years, Ohio rules have mandated that providers dispose of aborted fetuses "in a humane manner."  There is no further definition of "humane."

HOW HAS THE RULE BEEN ENFORCED?

That's not entirely clear. But the state said last week it will not enforce the regulation, as the health department and General Assembly work to clarify disposal procedures.

HAS PLANNED PARENTHOOD EVER VIOLATED THIS RULE?

No, according to Planned Parenthood and Ohio's health department. But based on his investigation, DeWine says he believes that Planned Parenthood's disposal methods are inhumane. Planned Parenthood says fetal tissue is handled by a licensed removal company, just like other health care providers use for medical material. A Planned Parenthood state leader has said the tissue is processed and sent to a solid waste facility that's specifically licensed for medical material, not a typical landfill.

ARE THERE OTHER STATE REGULATIONS GOVERNING MEDICAL MATERIAL?

Yes. For instance, the state requires infectious wastes -- which includes human tissues, organs and body parts -- to be disinfected before disposal. Disinfection can happen either through incineration, chemical treatment or autoclaving, a process that involves a high-pressure steam treatment to kill infectious material. Once the material is treated, it's no longer considered infectious and could be disposed of as solid waste.

DOES THE HUMANE DISPOSAL RULE APPLY TO FETUSES FROM MISCARRIAGES OR STILLBIRTHS?

No, just those from abortions. No similar rule exists for miscarriages or stillbirths, according to DeWine's office.

WHAT'S AN EXAMPLE OF HOW A HOSPITAL HANDLES FETAL REMAINS?

At Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, it depends on the age of the fetal remains from miscarriages or medically necessary abortions. Bob Mackle, a spokesman for the Columbus hospital, says a fetus that is 20 weeks or older is treated as any patient who dies. The parents can request a funeral home. If the parents choose not to take the remains, they are cremated and stored in a crypt indefinitely. Parents also can choose a funeral home for fetuses younger than 20 weeks. If they don't take the remains, the fetus is preserved and held in the hospital morgue for at least 29 days. Then, a company that specializes in medical biohazard takes the remains, cremates them and buries the ashes in its own landfill.

ARE LAWMAKERS TRYING TO CHANGE THE DISPOSAL REGULATIONS?

Yes. Several Republican state lawmakers want to require that fetal remains from abortions be either cremated or buried. Under one House proposal, in the works since before DeWine's report, women who get abortions would be asked to decide in writing whether the fetal remains should be buried or cremated. The decisions would be documented and the provider would pay for it. The Senate has a similar bill.

DO THE BILLS HAVE A CHANCE TO PASS?

Yes, though the Republican-dominated Legislature is on break until the new year. House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, who supports the legislation, says the issue will be a priority. Senate President Keith Faber is co-sponsoring the disposal-related bill in his chamber.

WHAT ARE THE RULES IN OTHER STATES?

Regulation of medical waste is determined on a state-by-state basis, according to the American Hospital Association. For instance, Georgia law requires licensed abortion clinics to bury or cremate fetal remains, while Tennessee's is less direct. It requires physicians who perform abortions to document how the fetal tissue is disposed of, allowing the state's department to track such disposal.