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24 Jul, 2012 13:03

Medical mystery over discarded fetuses: Stem-cell research or illegal abortions?

Medical experts and investigators are pondering the origins of more than 200 human fetuses found disposed in the Urals. Speculation ranges from illegal abortions to illegal stem-cell research.

The discovery of 248 human fetuses near the town of Nevyansk in the Urals sent waves through the medical community in Russia, raising questions as to why and how the fetuses, aged 12-16 weeks, ended up in the forest near a highway.Officials already believe the fetuses are from at least four different medical institutions. Some of them may be more than a decade old.All the fetuses are now undergoing forensic examination at a local hospital in an attempt to discover more details which may shed light on the case.Police officials say negligence on behalf of the company which provided disposal of biological waste for several hospitals in the region is most likely responsible for the incident. They add that right now none of the medical institutions are under suspicion for questionable activity.However, before any definite ruling is made by investigators, many in the medical field propose their own version of events.Because of the huge number of the disposed fetuses, says Lydia Lukutova, from the Moscow regional research institute of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the case may be a criminal one.“This case is simply impossible in normal gynecological clinics,”said Lukutova. “All fetuses must be disposed of immediately. I wouldn’t rule out some sort of criminal activity.”

The head of the State Duma committee on Family, Women and Children, Elena Mizulina, believes the fetuses were intended for pharmacological and cosmetological purposes.“It’s possible there was some kind of medical or law enforcement inspection coming up, so someone wanted to get rid of incriminating evidence,” she said in an interview to newspaper Izvestia. Mizulina said fetuses at this stage of development are especially valued by pharmacologists and cosmetologists since they present a great source of stem cells. “The demand for such “material” is huge.” Russian law allows choice on abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, but prohibits it in later stages, unless termination is prescribed by doctors as necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Because all the recovered fetuses appear to have been aborted at this stage or later, Mizulina believes they were done illegally, and the discovery once again raises the problem of illegal late-term abortions in the country. Some believe the fetuses were “leftovers” of a negligent experiment: “I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end it turned out that someone was gathering research material for a dissertation, and then just threw it away in this manner,” said an unidentified doctor  in an interview to Gazeta.ru. Gynecologist Yuliana Abaeva also believes the fetuses may have been intended to serve as the source of vaccines: “It could be an unused abortive material for vaccines or fetal therapy, which is a cell therapy, extremely popular in cosmetology,” she said in an interview to Russian News Service.Local officials say it is likely the fetuses were being transported for disposal since they are considered Class B biological waste and required by law to be incinerated.However, since none of the theories have any concrete supportive evidence so far, investigators are combing through villages near Nevyansk, hoping someone may offer a clue to the source of the fetus dumping ground in the forest.