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Fate Of Fetal Remains Unclear As Investigation Continues In Indiana

A few dozen anti-abortion activists gathered outside the coroner's office in Will County, Ill., on Thursday, to pray and call for formal burial of the remains.
Sarah McCammon
A few dozen anti-abortion activists gathered outside the coroner's office in Will County, Ill., on Thursday, to pray and call for formal burial of the remains.

It has been a week since the disturbing discovery of thousands of fetal remains at the home of a former abortion provider, and authorities still don't know why he kept them.

Ulrich Klopfer had performed abortions at three clinics in Indiana but lived across the state line in Illinois.

The 2,246 medically preserved fetal remains were discovered days after Klopfer died earlier this month at the age of 79. Illinois officials are now turning the investigation over to the Indiana attorney general. Though he may have violated some Illinois laws related to how these remains should have been handled, officials there don't believe there's any role for prosecutors in Illinois since Klopfer has died.

"Over 70 cardboard boxes of various sizes contained these remains," Will County Sheriff Mike Kelley said at a news conference on Thursday. "The remains discovered were inside ... small sealed plastic bags, which contained ... a chemical used to preserve biological material."

Authorities say the boxes were dated with the years 2000 to 2002, indicating the remains were nearly two decades old.

The doctor and his wife, Sherry, lived in a five-bedroom home in Crete, Ill., about an hour outside Chicago. The house was mostly "floor to ceiling junk," according to Kevin Bolger, an attorney for the widow, and the doctor had also filled up the garage and several outbuildings. After Klopfer's death, his widow found the fetal remains when she began going through his belongings, and notified authorities.

"Imagine losing your husband, leaving you with this dump, and then finding out that he's done this," Bolger says. "I mean this is like something out of The Twilight Zone. And she's totally freaked out about it."

Klopfer's medical license was suspended in 2016, and never reinstated. According to documents from the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana, officials found a range of issues involving Klopfer and his clinics, including insufficient training and licensing of staff. One document also said that Klopfer had performed an abortion on a 10-year-old girl who was a rape victim and failed to report the rape. Those are some of the issues that authorities in Indiana may be looking at as they continue to investigate how these remains got to Klopfer's home and why he was keeping them there. There is no evidence that he performed medical procedures at his home, authorities say.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that requires abortion providers in Indiana to either bury or cremate fetal remains. Because Klopfer lived in Illinois, the possibility that the remains came from those Indiana clinics complicated "calls about what to do with them," according to The Chicago Tribune. The Will County Coroner's Office in Illinois initially took possession of the remains, but on Thursday, officials said they planned to turn them over to Indiana, since that is where Klopfer worked as an abortion provider.

After the fetal remains were found, lawmakers and anti-abortion activists, including Vice President Pence, called for an investigation. On Monday, the vice president tweeted that Klopfer's "actions should be fully & thoroughly investigated, the remains of the unborn must be treated with dignity & respect & this abortionists defenders should be ashamed. We will always stand for the unborn."

On Thursday afternoon, a few dozen anti-abortion activists gathered outside the county coroner's office in Will County, Ill., to pray and call for formal burial of the remains. They said they want to know more about how this happened and whether anyone still alive is responsible.

It wasn't clear on Thursday what would happen to the remains, but investigators say women who were Klopfer's patients should reach out to the Indiana attorney general's office if they want to know more.

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Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR. She joined the organization in 2008.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.