Dr. Bruce Steir:
Persecuted for Giving Women Choice
Revolutionary Worker #964, July 5, 1998
Dr. Bruce Steir of San Francisco has been charged with murder for performing an abortion in which the patient later died of complications. His case has gone through a preliminary hearing and he now faces a trial that may happen this summer. This case has critical importance for all those who support a woman's right to choose. The California Medical Board and local prosecutors are trying to make this a "criminal" case. But the real deal is that this is a battle over access to abortion services, the ability of abortion providers to carry out their life-saving practices and the continuing availability of late-term abortions. The battle to defend Dr. Bruce Steir is a fight for choice, a struggle the people must fight to win.
A pro-choice rally was held in Oakland, March 10--the fifth anniversary of the murder of abortion provider doctor Dr. David Gunn, and the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers. Speaking to the crowd at this event, Dr. Bruce Steir said, "We have a tough battle on our hands. This issue is access and availability and that's what's being threatened. What we have to worry about is doctors getting their licenses surrendered or put on probation. The majority of abortion providers, especially those who provide second and third trimester abortions, are on [medical] probation or they've surrendered their licenses. I will continue to fight hard to win this case, not just to keep myself out of prison . . . but if I lose this case, it's going to have a chilling effect."
On December 13, 1996, Dr. Steir flew to Moreno Valley in Riverside County, Southern California, to perform abortions at a private clinic owned by another doctor. He performed a second trimester abortion on 27-year-old Sharon Hamptlon, who was 20 weeks pregnant. The technique he used is called a d&e, for dilation and evacuation. During the procedure, the cervix is dilated or stretched and the uterus is evacuated, meaning that all parts of the now-dead fetus are removed. This technique was developed to replace saline abortions, which forced the patient to go through labor-like contractions to expel a dead fetus. Saline abortions meant prolonged suffering for women, up to eighteen hours. It also meant the procedure took a lot more time for women who already had to travel for hours to get an abortion. Carol Downer, a member of the Bruce Steir Defense Committee and one of the founders of the Feminist Women's Health Centers, told the RW, "Doctors developed this d&e out of compassion for women. If you look at it from the woman's point of view, it's much more human, much safer, everything."
Every surgical procedure has possible complications. One of the dangers of a d&e is a perforated (torn) uterus. Sharon Hamptlon suffered this complication, but it was not detected before she was released from the clinic. In fact, when she was released to drive home with her mother, her pulse and blood pressure were normal, and an abdominal examination by Dr. Steir showed nothing abnormal. She seemed drowsy, but she had just been given a strong local anesthetic, so there didn't seem to be cause for alarm. However, hours later she died at Barstow Hospital near her home. The autopsy later showed that some blood had leaked from the tear in her uterus into her abdomen. The local coroner said this was the cause of death, and added, "I don't think there's any criminal wrongdoing here."
Bruce Steir told the RW, "When the woman died I was devastated, because I had had only one death before, a ruptured tubular pregnancy. I was devastated when she died, because she was a young woman, a mother. She died in December 1996. I expected a malpractice lawsuit which was served to me in March. But then in October of '97, unknown to me, the Medical Board had been doing this underground investigation and spiriting witnesses away and they decided to tell the D.A., `Look what we got on Steir. We think this is a murder case.' The Medical Board initiated it, the D.A. picked it up and said, `OK, we'll arrest him.'
"Six plainclothes detectives--six--came to my door and rang my doorbell: two from San Francisco County, two from Riverside County, two from the Medical Board. They took me away in handcuffs and I spent three days in jail in an orange suit. They transported me from San Francisco to Sacramento overnight, and then from Sacramento by bus to Riverside County, a 12-hour ride. They did the prison stops. I was not only handcuffed, I was shackled. They're shackling a 66-year-old doctor who lost a patient to a serious complication. And they enjoyed it." Dr. Steir was later released on $250,000 bail.
The persecution of Bruce Steir is the first homicide case to come out of a Medical Board of California (MBC) investigation. And given the ugly climate being created by the anti-abortion/anti-woman movement, it's not surprising that this unprecedented move came in a case involving an abortion--and that it took place in Riverside County, a place that's notorious for juries packed with Christian fundamentalists.
And the MBC is far from impartial on the question of abortion. Carol Downer said, "I know very well that there are numerous anti-abortion people in that board, and anti-feminist." There are facts that back her up. The MBC has a long history of collaboration with anti-choice forces in California. An investigation by attorneys for abortion provider Dr. Leo F. Kenneally of Los Angeles turned up extensive correspondence between officials of the MBC, a division of the State Department of Consumer Affairs, and antis in Southern California. Dr. Kenneally successfully fought to keep his license in the face of attempts to revoke it.
The materials obtained in the Kenneally case show that the MBC treats abortion complaints differently, by pursuing them more vigorously and for a longer period of time than other complaints against doctors. They also showed that MBC employees work closely with anti-abortion forces. A letter from the Executive Director of the MBC to an anti-choice state senator said, "I'm pleased to advise you that this agency has for some time been working with the complainant Jeanette Driesbach [a Southern California anti-abortion activist]. Members of my enforcement staff confer with Mrs. Driesbach on a regular basis." In one of many letters to Jeanette Driesbach, an official stated, "I regret that this agency has no authority to `shut down' the Her Medical Clinic,"--a frequent target of antis.
The Kenneally files and other evidence also show that in the case of abortion providers, the MBC routinely ignores its own rules that two physician reviewers agree before a formal accusation is filed. In the case of Dr. Joseph Durante, the owner of the Moreno Valley clinic where Bruce Steir worked, a review officer ignored the testimony of two experienced Ob/Gyn doctors and put Dr. Durante on five years probation.
Carol Downer points out that almost all the abortion providers who have been attacked by the MBC do late-term abortions and are in private practice. In fact, she said, almost all of the providers of late-term abortions in California are on probation.
The MBC selectively uses--against abortion providers--the fact that there is a risk of complications with every medical procedure. If a doctor is in practice long enough, he or she will have a certain number of patients who develop medical complications. But abortion doctors are held to a standard of perfect care. And if the MBC can't find negligence on the part of an abortion provider, they manufacture it. This is exactly what happened as the MBC set about building a case against Dr. Bruce Steir. They wrote a series of "investigative reports" which they then showed to doctors in Riverside and neighboring San Bernardino counties. On the basis of these "investigative reports," two doctors testified against Dr. Steir as expert witnesses at the preliminary hearing. These "investigative reports" contained information which was false or incomplete. Neither doctor examined the evidence in the case, including clinical records or police reports. Neither examined Sharon Hamptlon's body.
Carol Downer talked about her reaction to seeing the case presented in court: "I haven't spent 25 years of my life fighting for abortion rights to support poor health care. But I went to the preliminary hearing, listened to every word of testimony, and read this very thoroughly...We've had at least a dozen top doctors and when I say top, I don't mean in an elitist sense, but I'm talking about doctors who have performed this type of abortion over a period of years, with a lot of experience, who have published articles about it and are very sincere in their dedication to this and who you can count on to be critical, who have reviewed this and who have said, `Hey, there's no problem here.' "
One of the doctors, Frank Sheridan, Chief Medical Examiner for the San Bernardino County Coroner, changed his opinion on the witness stand. He had been told that the patient had a high, erratic pulse rate, pallor, chills, pain and abdominal distention when she left the clinic. This was made up by the Medical Board. Dr. Sheridan admitted that he would never have ruled the death a "homicide" if he had known the true facts.
The second doctor, Dr. Eugene Albright, testified as an expert witness. He has performed abortions, but had never done one past the 16th week. He was not familiar with the techniques or instruments used. Dr. Albright relied on a single statement by a sonographer who assisted Dr. Steir during the abortion. She had stated that she heard him say, "I think I pulled bowel." She admitted that she had a hard time remembering everything that was said, and in fact, her statements changed constantly from investigator to investigator on the witness stand.
Despite this flimsy evidence, Dr. Albright testified that it was his "expert opinion" that Dr. Steir had perforated the wall of the uterus, grabbed onto a piece of intestine, pulled it, doubled-up, eight inches through the uterus and then pushed it all back through a hole that was one-and-a-half centimeters wide. Such an incredible maneuver would have caused three things: 1) significant injury to the intestine, though none was found at the autopsy, 2) a much larger tear in the uterus and 3) horrible, excruciating pain to a patient on local anesthetic.
One of the experts who looked at the preliminary hearing transcript, a Dr. William F. Harrison of Fayetteville, Arkansas, wrote to Dr. Albright, "I have never before personally witnessed the level of intellectual dishonesty that your testimony displays." Dr. Harrison also said he didn't believe that the patient could have bled to death from the amount of blood she lost, and suggested that the autopsy overlooked other possibilities.
Carol Downer said that, after sitting in the hearing for three days, she suddenly realized, "My god, we're in a middle of a complete frame-up.'"
A Matter of Choice
A brochure from the Bruce Steir Defense Committee points out, "Less than 1% of women who seek abortions have pregnancies which have advanced past 20 weeks. These women are generally the poorest, the youngest, and the least educated. They often have stories of domestic abuse, difficult if not tragic life circumstances. They may have suspected fetal damage or their pregnancy may have been misdiagnosed. Most hospital-based facilities or Planned Parenthoods do not offer abortion past 16 weeks' gestation. Thus, it is left to physicians who practice in their office or in feminist clinics to provide this essential service. These physicians are the very ones most under attack. If they are forced to surrender their licenses, as Dr. Steir has done, or worse, if they are charged with a crime when there is a complication as Dr. Steir has been, it will become impossible for women in California to obtain later abortion."
When the MBC first moved to revoke Dr. Steir's license he did not have the funds to mount a long and complicated defense and voluntarily surrendered his license. The government has taken the services of a heroic abortion provider away from the people. But Dr. Steir has gotten significant support from those who are determined to defend the right to abortion. Carol Downer told the RW. "The board of the National Abortion Federation voted to support his case. NAF is in the process of drafting a letter to the California Medical Board. I spoke to the organization in a plenary meeting. They distribute our materials to the whole membership. Most of the financial support that he's gotten so far has been through that means. The California Medical Association has taken a position that he should not be charged with murder. Refuse & Resist! attended the preliminary hearing. They've put out leaflets and distributed materials at the National Abortion Federation. NOW groups have been supporting Dr. Steir." Dr. Steir is being represented in this case by Doren Weinberg, a long-time progressive attorney.
But Carol Downer said some people don't grasp the importance of the struggle over late-term abortions. "Numerically it's very small, maybe one in a hundred. But, first of all, the stigmatization [of abortion] is taking its toll. Plus it's the hardship cases. It's the women who are going to go to a quack. It's the women who are going to have babies and abandon them because they're young and confused, or their backs are up against the wall. They're much more desperate. We're talking about the desperate end of the continuum." She said it's an illusion that people can compromise away the right to late-term abortions to preserve the rest of women's abortion rights: "Their aim is to keep women from having any control over their reproduction, including birth control of all kinds, lifestyle choice of sexuality."
At the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers rally in Oakland, Dr. Steir was presented with a special certificate of appreciation by filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman, who said, "Dr. Steir is part of a sacred circle who have put their lives on the line for us." The certificate read: "In recognition of your courageous stand on the frontlines to ensure that women have the right to choose. Thank you for your perseverance, your courage and your commitment to women. In this climate of mean-spirited, anti-abortion politics--we got your back. We are honored to stand beside you, in solidarity and resistance. In honor of a true hero."
Dr. Bruce Steir must be allowed to return to his post. The Committee to Defend Bruce Steir is asking for the following support:
Write to: Medical Board of California, Attn: Executive Director, 1420 Howe Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95825. Tax-deductible checks can be send to: Dr. Steir Constitutional Defense Fund c/o Chico Feminist Women's Health Ctr., 1469 Humboldt Road, Suite 200, Chico, CA 95928. Fundraisers are needed. For speakers, videos and films suitable for group meetings, the Defense Committee can be reached at 530-891-1991 or by e-mail, SteirFund@aol.com. The Defense Committee has extensive information relating to this case, including an indexed preliminary hearing transcript.
The Defense Committee is mobilizing people to attend the next court date for Dr. Steir on July 10 at 8:30 a.m. A Motion to Dismiss will be heard in Dept. 61, 4100 Main St., Riverside County Courthouse, Riverside, CA. To participate in a press conference, people can contact Megan Seely, 916-763-1838 (pager) or 916-891-1911.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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