Stillborns' ashes used in 1950s atomic research

May 05, 1994|By New York Times News Service

As part of a national program to evaluate the potential hazards of radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests, the government's nuclear weapons industry sanctioned research in the 1950s that involved chemically analyzing the cremated remains of stillborn babies.

The research, in which ashes of the stillborns and of miscarried fetuses were studied for concentrations of radioactive strontium, was conducted at the University of Chicago in 1953 and 1954 under the guidance of Dr. Willard F. Libby.

Doctor Libby, a radiochemist and Nobel Prize winner, became a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy.

The information was released Monday by the Energy Department in response to Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary's order last December to make public the records related to Cold War-era radiation experimentation on humans.

Alexander M. Capron, professor of law and medicine, and co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at the University of Southern California, said Tuesday that the use for research of tissue from stillborns and miscarried fetuses would be prohibited today without the written consent of the parents.

But in the 1950s, he said, tissue from stillborns and fetuses, as well as cadavers, was commonly collected for medical studies without the explicit knowledge of immediate families.

"This was not unusual in the 1950s and the 1960s," Mr. Capron said. "At that time, the practice seemed to be to regard medical waste as belonging to the doctors who had possession of it, and there was no thought this would be a concern of the patients or their families."

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