The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Medical Examiner has no plans to autopsy fetuses removed from antiabortion activist’s home, officials say

Two D.C. officials with knowledge of the case said that decision could change if they receive additional information.

Lauren Handy, third from right, an antiabortion activist, and other pro-life demonstrators participate in a “pray-in” outside the office of then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to protest a canceled House vote that would ban abortions after 20 weeks in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP)

The city medical examiner does not plan at this time to perform autopsies on the five fetuses police removed from a Capitol Hill rowhouse earlier this week, according to two D.C. officials with knowledge of the case, even though the group involved in their discovery claims the fetuses were all late-term abortions performed illegally.

The fetuses were found in a basement apartment occupied by Lauren Handy, a well-known local antiabortion protester and director of activism for Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising.

PAAU said in a statement Thursday evening that it received the fetuses from a “whistleblower” who worked at Washington Surgi-Clinic, a D.C. abortion clinic, and had arranged for police to pick them up because they believe the fetuses were aborted illegally.

The clinic declined to comment, but its website says it performs abortions up to 27 weeks of pregnancy, which is at the very end of the second trimester.

Handy and other members of her group scheduled a news conference Tuesday where they said they would share details.

Ashan Benedict, D.C. police’s executive assistant chief of police, told reporters Thursday that the fetuses appeared to have been aborted “in accordance with D.C. law [and] there doesn’t seem to be anything criminal in nature about that except for how they got into this house.”

On Friday, D.C. police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said the matter “remains an ongoing investigation.” He said, “While there are still a number of questions, we can’t provide details at this point.” He said the origin of the fetuses also remains part of that inquiry. Sternbeck said D.C. police have not filed any charges or made any arrests in regards to the found fetuses.

Officials with the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner declined to comment about the case.

Two D.C. officials with knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since they are not permitted to discuss an ongoing investigation, said the decision not to perform autopsies could change if they receive additional information.

Randall Terry, a longtime national antiabortion leader working with Handy’s group, said the activists don’t know the circumstances of the pregnancies that ended in abortions, but he said that graphic images of fetuses circulating on social media Friday night were the remains taken from Washington Surgi-Clinic. D.C. police and other officials declined to comment on whether the pictures on social media are of the fetuses taken from the residence.

D.C. and seven states do not have specific laws prohibiting abortion after a certain point in pregnancy. Terry said the activists want an investigation of whether the clinic violated federal law, which restricts when a procedure known as “intact dilation and extraction” can be performed and extends legal rights to fetuses that survive abortions.

Plain-clothed officers discovered the fetuses Wednesday when they entered a rowhouse on 6th Street SE to investigate what police described as “a tip regarding potential biohazard material at the location.”

5 fetuses found in D.C. home of woman charged in abortion clinic blockade

Around the same time that police were swarming the quiet residential side street, federal authorities announced the indictment of Handy and eight other people in a 2020 blockade of an abortion clinic with chain and rope. They face federal civil rights counts connected with the incident at the Washington Surgi-Clinic. Included in the statement PAAU released Thursday was a March 30 letter from a California attorney to D.C. officials, saying “an entity” had “come into possession” of fetuses — the number in the statement was blacked out — and wanted “to advise appropriate authorities … and request an investigation and forensic examinations.”

The discovery of the fetuses has drawn attention to Handy, who appears to have documented her life protesting outside abortion clinics and research centers across the country on social media.

In Facebook posts, the 28-year-old said she is a native of Gloucester, Va., who dropped out of college about 10 years ago to become an antiabortion activist full time. In recent years, Handy has been a regular presence outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Northeast Washington, where she tries to dissuade people from getting an abortion. She has also protested multiple times outside a clinic in Baton Rouge, where she said she settled in 2018 before returning to Washington recently. She’s been arrested at protests multiple times, including once in the District and once in Silver Spring, court records show. Attorneys who represented Handy in those cases did not return messages seeking comment.

On Facebook, she has also posted pleas for money and other assistance for women she said have decided not to have abortions. “Setting up for Momma T’s baby shower!!” reads one post dated Feb. 20, 2021. “Socially distanced. Creative and cute. Baby and mom thriving.”

Another longtime D.C.-area antiabortion activist, the Rev. Pat Mahoney, said Handy was being unfairly vilified. She and the group somewhat randomly came into possession of fetuses from Surgi-Center, he said.

“I feel this story has turned into the accusation that Handy is somehow this creepy person who is keeping fetuses in her basement. And it’s nothing like that,” he said. As far as the police coming to Handy’s home, “this wasn’t a random search or tips from some strange person but a coordinated, planned event.”

He said the fetuses were only found last week at the clinic and that perhaps the group had inadvertently fumbled their interaction with law enforcement on turning the remains over.

In the group’s Thursday statement, it said the fetuses had each had a “funeral Mass and ‘naming ceremony’ … with their bodies present.”

Most of the country’s antiabortion advocacy is led by faith-based activism, and opposition to abortion is a priority of the Republican Party. But there are multiple smaller antiabortion groups that identify with liberal positions on race, LGBTQ rights and poverty.

PAAU’s site says it is “committed to radical inclusivity while magnifying secular, feminist, liberal, and LGBTQIA+ identifying pro-life voices, especially those belonging to people of color.” Three of the five members of the group identify on the site as atheist, though Handy describes herself as a “Catholic anarcho mutualist … who creates trans-inclusive spaces within the pro-life movement.” On her Facebook page, she included a selfie of herself in a face mask that reads: “Black Lives Matter from Womb to Natural Death.”

Mahoney said the antiabortion movement has a history, especially in the 1970s and 1980s — when medical disposal was less stringent — of going into clinic dumpsters in search of fetal remains so they could do burial services. Activists sometimes would use the material for advocacy. In 1992, Terry, who founded the major antiabortion group Operation Rescue, was charged with an incident in which then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was shown a male fetus in a plastic container as Clinton was leaving a New York City hotel for a jog.

Even if later-term abortions — which is what Handy’s group alleges happened in the case of the five fetuses — are very rare, Mahoney said, it’s a significant number to the movement. The group’s statement raised questions about the D.C. police stating within a day that the abortions were done legally.

“We’d argue, let’s get the autopsy. At the very least, the [D.C. police] needs to release the data. I wouldn’t trust them on whether police shot an African-American just on their word. I want to see the results.”

Katie Watson, a bioethicist and professor at the Northwestern University medical school, said it was unlikely a layperson — like the activists — could tell simply by looking at fetal remains whether it was born alive, which could make the abortion a federal crime. She also said many women don’t realize they are pregnant until the second trimester, and that antiabortion laws and restrictions deliberately make it more difficult for patients — 75 percent of whom are low-income.

“I want to push back on what I see as this idea of later abortion coming with this stigma. In many ways, part of this patient group is the predictable and natural product of the restrictions on abortion,” she said.

She also called the activists’ use of the images “tremendously disrespectful.”

“To me, what is gruesome is the appropriation of other women’s fetal remains for a piece of political symbolism.”

Dan Morse, Carol D. Leonnig, Ellie Silverman and Annys Shin contributed to this report.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.