Cella Roberts was twenty-three weeks pregnant when she discovered her fetus had a heart defect that would make it unable to survive outside the womb. Roberts herself was suffering from a blood sugar problem she had developed during the pregnancy and, as it wore on, she was getting sicker and sicker, facing the potentially fatal complication of toxemia. Though an abortion seemed the most logical choice–her doctor counseled it, and everyone from her neighbors to her in-laws urged her to follow his advice–Roberts wasn’t sure what to do. So she brought her rabbi along to a doctor’s appointment to help her make the wrenching decision.
“We asked all the questions we could,” remembers Roberts. “Then I cried and cried and cried.” Rather than risk her life to deliver a dead baby, Roberts decided to end the pregnancy. She was referred to Warren Hern in Boulder, Colorado, virtually the only physician in a six-state area who could perform an abortion at that stage. The four-day procedure was excruciating. But Roberts, who already had a 4-year-old daughter at the time, eventually managed to put it behind her. “I had responsibilities to people who were already living. I was a mother and a wife and a sister and a friend and a neighbor,” she says. Roberts had to move on–and she did, adopting a baby last year.
But the trauma of that terrible period, already more than two years in the past, has resurfaced recently, since Roberts learned that, unbeknownst to her, the ashes from her cremated fetus had been buried in a secret ceremony at the Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Boulder. The church had gotten the ashes from Crist Mortuary, which had contracted with Hern in 2001 to dispose of medical waste. Though their contract specified that the material would not be part of a religious ceremony, the mortuary company had given each of seven shipments of ashes received under the contract to the church, which had placed them near a “memorial wall for the unborn,” where a church bell tolled to the rhythm of a beating heart. Crist also gave the church ashes from fetuses that were miscarried at Avista Adventist Hospital in nearby Louisville, Colorado.
On January 23, one day after the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to abortion, the church went public, inviting press to its ritual service involving the ashes of these miscarried and aborted fetuses and beginning one of the most bizarre and unsettling chapters in the struggle over abortion. Much of the media attention has focused on the intentions of the church (“We want to give dignity to the short lives of these babies,” the Boulder County Daily Camera quoted the organizer of the services as saying) and the no-hard-feelings stance of the hospital (“It’s a neat thing what they’re doing in Boulder,” Avista CEO John Sackett said in an AP story). But few have asked how the women directly affected by this gruesome theft feel about it.
While she had cried in sadness many times over the loss of her pregnancy, Roberts’s response was pure anger. “This time, I cried out of fury,” she says. “That was my fetus! I had worked out a situation to take care of that fetus in a way that was appropriate for me and my family and our religious views.” Roberts knew she had to respond to the indignity. But what is the appropriate reaction to such a bizarre and personal affront? “I can’t imagine going to a Catholic grave and digging it up and saying I don’t think this should be here, I’m going to put it in my Jewish graveyard,” she says. Once again, she turned to her rabbi for advice. “When I asked him if this was worth pursuing, he said, ‘Sue the bastards,'” says Roberts, who took his advice and is now consulting lawyers.