BOULDER, Colo. -- A Roman Catholic church buried the ashes of hundreds of aborted fetuses yesterday, a day after the 32d anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, drawing criticism that the church was exploiting women's grief to make a political statement.
A crowd of 250 parishioners prayed as the ashes were buried in the Sacred Heart of Mary Church cemetery, while a handful of protesters gathered nearby holding signs that read, "This church is a grave robber."
A mortuary hired by the abortion clinic to dispose of the fetuses had been giving the ashes to the church for years to be buried at a memorial. Dr. Warren Hern, the clinic's director, said he had no idea such an arrangement had been made and said his contract required the mortuary to bury the ashes in its own plot.
The church agreed to return the remains of 300 to 500 fetuses that had been cremated in November before the service began yesterday. The church had been planning to bury up to 1,000 fetuses.
Organizers said they wanted to give the fetuses the burial they deserved and provide a place for women who have had abortions to grieve.
"I think they misunderstand what we're doing," service organizer Susan LaVelle said. She said that the parish has held unannounced burials twice a year since 2001 but that the parish priest agreed to make the burial public this year.
LaVelle said the timing of the service so close to the Saturday anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision was a coincidence.
The Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion was issued in 1973, and groups supporting abortion rights say they have to fight as hard as ever to protect the decision.
Kate Horle, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, has said many of Hern's patients were devastated by the news of a religious service.
"Our concern is for the women who had personal relationships with Dr. Hern and their understanding of what would happen with the fetuses," she said. "That trust was violated with a third party."
Horle said most of Hern's patients had fetuses with fatal anomalies. His clinic specializes in "late abortion for fetal disorders," according to its website.
Hern did not return a message seeking comment yesterday, but called the service last week "a cynical exploitation of private grief for political purposes."
Doug Kramer, 18, said his family attended the burial because his sister considered an abortion 14 years ago but instead gave her baby up for adoption.
"Abortion does stop a beating heart," he said. 'It's not giving a girl or boy a chance at life."