The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some used to heat Britain's hospitals, an investigation has found.
Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in "waste-to-energy" plants that generate power for heat.
Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which Dan Poulter, the health minister, described as "totally unacceptable". At least 15,500 foetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the past two years alone, Channel 4's Dispatches discovered. The programme, which will air tonight, found that parents who lost children in early pregnancy were often treated without compassion and were not consulted about what they wanted to happen to the remains.
One of the country's leading hospitals, Addenbrooke's in Cambridge, incinerated 797 foetuses of under 13 weeks gestation at their own waste-to-energy plant.
Mothers were told the remains had been "cremated". Another waste-to-energy facility at Ipswich Hospital, operated by a private contractor, incinerated 1,101 foetal remains between 2011 and 2013. They were brought in from another hospital before being burnt, generating energy for the hospital site. Ipswich Hospital itself disposes of remains by cremation.
Dr Poulter said: "While the vast majority of hospitals are acting in the appropriate way, that must be the case for all hospitals and the Human Tissue Authority has now been asked to ensure that it acts on this issue without delay."
Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS's medical director, has written to all NHS trusts telling them that the practice must stop.
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has also written to the Human Tissue Authority to ask it make sure that guidance is clear. The Care Quality Commission said it would investigate the programme's findings. Prof Sir Mike Richards, the chief inspector of hospitals, said he was "disappointed" at the findings. "This breaches our standard on respecting and involving people who use services and I'm keen for Dispatches to share their evidence with us," he added.
Ipswich Hospital Trust said it was concerned to discover that foetal remains from another hospital were incinerated on its site. A spokesman added that the trust "takes great care over foetal remains".
A spokesman for the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said trained health professionals discussed the options for disposal with parents "both verbally and in writing".
"The parents are given exactly the same choice on the disposal of foetal remains as for a stillborn child and their personal wishes are respected," he added.