Important Struggle in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Defending Dr. Steir

Revolutionary Worker #968, August 9, 1998

July 10, Riverside, California: Judge Patrick Magers refused to dismiss murder charges against abortion provider Dr. Bruce Steir. Dr. Steir was charged in the case of a woman who died after a medical complication occurred during a second trimester abortion at a private clinic in December 1996. He is the first doctor to be accused of murder following a Medical Board of California investigation. The judge's ruling came during a hearing on a motion to dismiss brought by lawyers for Dr. Steir. The next court date for Dr. Steir is scheduled for September 4.

This case is a significant escalation in the attacks on abortion providers. The outcome could affect access to abortion services, the ability of providers to continue their abortion practices and the availability of later abortions. Deborah Halbert, President of Southwest Riverside County NOW, told the RW, "I am interested in women having equal rights, and coming into full participation in society with men, and this is just one of the things that is part of equality, women's right to choose. We have to have the right to choose or we don't have freedom."

Over 30 supporters were in the courtroom--representing the many different forces who have stepped forward to defend Dr. Steir. In addition to many doctors and medical organizations, women's and abortion rights organizations and others have demanded that the murder charges against Dr. Steir be dropped. This includes the California National Organization for Women (NOW), California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (CARAL) and Refuse & Resist!

Speakers at a rally and press conference held outside the Riverside County Courthouse were Carol Downer, Esq. of the Dr. Bruce Steir Defense Committee; Deborah Halbert and Tambra Turano-Davis of the Southwest Riverside chapter of NOW; Linci Comy, Director of the Women's Choice Clinic, Oakland, CA; and Simone Durante, Refuse & Resist! Many of the supporters were from the Riverside area, others had driven from L.A. or the San Francisco Bay Area and there were family friends of Dr. Steir.

Speaking for the Dr. Bruce Steir Defense Committee, Carol Downer, a long-time fighter for abortion rights, said, "I came to the preliminary hearing and over three days of testimony it became abundantly clear that the state had no hard evidence that was credible to anyone who was familiar with the field of abortion to sustain this charge of murder. It was held over because of the fact that they had an expert witness who was willing to concoct a very implausible account of what happened.

"Since then many people have read this transcript [of the preliminary hearing], and what pro-choice activists have found that have read this transcript--and this includes doctors, community groups, doctors all over the country and in Canada--is exactly what we saw when we went to the preliminary hearing. We are beginning to gather support. We have the support of the National Abortion Federation whose Medical Quality Assurance Committee thoroughly approved this. We have shown it to dozens of doctors around the country. We have letters from the California Medical Association [CMA]. No doctors have believed this story." The CMA assembled a panel of doctors across the state who are experienced in doing later procedures. The report concluded that Dr. Steir "acted as a prudent and careful physician."

The National Abortion Federation wrote to the Medical Board, "You have done a grave disservice to physicians and their patients everywhere in seeking to resolve a question of possible malpractice through the criminal court system. We urge you to consider the chilling consequences of this action...."

In the preliminary hearing which Carol Downer referred to, the entire case against Dr. Steir was based on a single statement by a medical assistant about the December 13, 1996 abortion on patient Sharon Hamptlon. A sonographer--a person trained to do sonograms, ultrasound "pictures" of the human body--said that Dr. Steir told her, "I think I pulled bowel." The abortion procedure that was being performed is called a d&e, for "dilation and evacuation," during which fetal parts are removed from the uterus with surgical instruments. The instruments can contact "bowel," or intestines, only if the uterus is torn, or perforated--a life-threatening complication.

The sonographer--who said she recalled this remark by Dr. Steir the next day--admitted she had a hard time remembering everything that was said and her statements changed constantly from investigator to investigator on the witness stand.

The claim that Dr. Steir said, "I think I pulled bowel" was then used by the prosecution to construct an impossible medical scenario. A 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 in a little hole. Such an incredible maneuver would have caused significant injury to the intestine and a large tear in the uterus--both of which were not found at the autopsy.

The July 10 hearing on a motion to dismiss was based on the transcript of the preliminary hearing. Doren Weinberg, a criminal defense lawyer from San Francisco and long-time member of the National Lawyers Guild, recounted his argument to reporters: "What we're saying is there may be some evidence here, but the quality of that evidence is so suspect and so weak that you cannot send a doctor to trial on second-degree murder on the basis of that kind of evidence." The motion was immediately denied. During the hearing, both the prosecutor and the judge referred only to the one statement by the sonographer that Dr. Steir had said, "I think I pulled bowel."

After the hearing, Dr. Steir told the RW, "I'm very pleased with the support but I'm not very pleased with the judicial system. The judges at large are more concerned with procedures than they are with truth, so it's a real turn-off. I'm very depressed about it, because I had hoped that justice would prevail today and it did not."

Linci Comy, Director of Women's Choice Clinic of Oakland, spoke out angrily at the press conference about the persecution of Dr. Steir. "This is not the first time that the California Medical Board has put me in a legal situation because of a doctor having an abortion complication. Ten years ago one of my staff physicians had a medical complication that resulted in a woman having hospitalization. She was driven out of practice by the California Medical Board, even though we won that case and showed that once again there was no negligence, that complications happen. She gave up her practice because she could not handle the harassment. It was then that I met Dr. Bruce Steir. He was my replacement physician who provided first trimester and second trimester abortion services as a skilled, compassionate man, that I have had the pleasure--the pleasure--of working with.

"When you have a medical complication, what you need to do is the safest, most competent care, following protocols, following standards of care, doing the work the best you can. Dr. Steir has done this for decades. How dare anyone accuse a physician of his stature of being responsible for intentionally causing the death of a woman, a man who should be given heroic status for what he has done in the last 25 years for abortion rights."

Although the case of Dr. Bruce Steir is an escalation of its attacks, the Medical Board of California (MBC) has been pursuing an anti-abortion agenda for years. Documents from the MBC show that they have extensive contacts with anti-abortion forces, including anti-abortion legislators. They write friendly letters to antis, conduct research for them, and tip them off when a woman has a complication. Abortion providers who come before the MBC on charges of incompetence are treated like criminals, according to lawyers who represent doctors in these hearings.

Carol Downer, speaking at a recent R&R! forum in Los Angeles, explained that there are about 50 abortion providers who work in private clinics in California. "A couple of years ago we did an informal survey of these doctors, contacting every one we could. And we were absolutely shocked to find out that they were nearly all on probation. They've all had complications. Complications happen. And if the Board is going to call every single complication a reason to charge a doctor--and then once you go in the burden is on you to prove that you were competent and you can't bring in any evidence except your expert opinion--the doctor is going to be on probation."

The Medical Board of California was subpoenaed to the July 10 hearing. But they ignored the subpoena.

Southwest Riverside County NOW has been active in defending Dr. Steir. In addition to speaking publicly about the case and writing letters of protest to authorities, they have begun a series of house meetings in the area to promote discussion of the case among feminists and other women's rights supporters. As Deborah Halbert pointed out, "Every doctor who provides abortion is risking his life. And he's doing it because he is concerned about the women's right to choose. So that's why we're here to support him. We have to support him in his time of need."

The MBC attacks are not the only threats to abortion providers. Simone Durante of Refuse & Resist! pointed out, "Threats and murderous assaults on doctors and clinic workers, bombings, arson and acid attacks continue unabated. The anti-abortion forces will stop at nothing to prevent women from controlling their own bodies. In today's climate where those who help women end unwanted pregnancies are slandered as `baby killers' and women who choose not to give birth are made to feel guilty and ashamed, we're here to send a different message. Today we stand tall and declare our determination to support providers and the choices they make possible for women. Without abortion providers there can be no choice, and without choice women cannot be free!"

The Committee to Defend Dr. Bruce Steir can be contacted c/o Feminist Women's Health Center, 1469 Humboldt Road, Suite 200, Chico, CA 95928. They are asking for the following help:

Write to: Medical Board of California, Attention: Executive Director, 1420 Howe Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95825. Tax-deductible checks can be made out to: Dr. Steir Constitutional Defense Fund, c/o Chico Feminist Women's Health Center, 1469 Humboldt Road, Suite 200, Chico, CA 95928.

Fundraisers are needed. For speakers, videos and films suitable for your group meeting, please call the Defense Committee at 530/891-1911 or contact by email: The Defense Committee has extensive information, including an indexed preliminary hearing transcript. People can call or write to find out more and can also contact Refuse & Resist!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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