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Matters of Life and Death : New Book Puts Back in the Spotlight 16-Year-Old Case of an Orange County Doctor Tried Twice but Never Convicted of Strangling to Death a Baby After an Abortion He Had Performed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s been 16 years since a frightened teen-ager braved her way through mobs of screaming protesters and glaring camera lights outside a Santa Ana courthouse to testify against her doctor in one of the first and most controversial abortion/murder cases in the country.

As noisy scuffles broke out in the hallways between abortion rights and anti-abortion activists, Dr. William Waddill sat inside the Santa Ana courtroom on trial for murder.

Waddill, a successful Huntington Harbour obstetrician, was accused of strangling to death a baby who had survived the abortion he had performed on the 18-year-old.

He eventually was tried twice for murder, but never convicted in connection with the baby’s death.

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“It was an incredibly tragic case,” recalled attorney Charles Weedman, who defended Waddill. “People were being ruled by their emotions.”

Now, with the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion and President Clinton’s recent order further lifting restrictions on abortion and family planning, the political and religious furor over the issue rages on.

And nearly two decades after the Waddill trials and another abortion case involving Dr. Kenneth Edelin in Boston galvanized anti-abortion advocates, comes a novel--loosely based on Waddill’s prosecution--that threatens to open old wounds.

“The Fourth Trimester” (Rubric Press, $16.95)--written by Orange lawyer Kevin Gallagher--is expected in bookstores next week.

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Though the book is fiction, Gallagher admits some of its striking similarities to the Waddill case focus on arguments over ethical and medical issues that permeated the trials and continue to weigh heavily on doctors today.

“The alleged infanticide case against Waddill brought for the first time the Roe vs. Wade decision to the courthouse steps in Southern California,” Gallagher said.

Like the Edelin trial in Boston, the Waddill case served as an early lightning rod for angry and sometimes violent abortion protests.

Neither jury in the Waddill trials could reach a unanimous decision and the charge was finally dismissed after the second jury in 1979 voted 11 to 1 for acquittal.

The trials turned heavily on the ethical and medical issues of life and death and a doctor’s responsibility over whether to use artificial measures to prolong the life of an individual who faces certain death. Aside from the allegations that Waddill strangled the infant, the prosecution contended that the doctor failed to try to save the baby and could be convicted for that alone.

In the Boston case, Edelin was convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of a male fetus during a 17-year-old girl’s abortion in 1973. His conviction was later overturned. At issue in the case was a question of “viability,” or whether at the time of the abortion, the fetus was viable and had the ability to live outside the womb.

While the legal ordeals of Waddill and Edelin have long ended, ethical issues involving decisions on life and death confront doctors today more than ever, notes Dr. Stanley Korenman, associate dean for medical ethics at UCLA.

As progress in medical technology and ability to save lives advances, doctors are increasingly forced to decide when an individual’s life should be saved by expensive, artificial measures, Korenman said.

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“It’s a real struggle. We doctors are trying to do the right thing. We are trying to preserve useful life,” he said.

But former Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Chatterton contended: “In the Waddill case, the doctor had a duty to do something to try to save the baby’s life, regardless of the fact that she was an abortion survivor or how uncertain the quality of her life would be.

“He can’t just sit there and watch the baby die. A woman’s right to an abortion doesn’t mean the baby can be killed if it survives that abortion,” Chatterton had argued to the jury in 1979.

However, defense attorney Weedman called the prosecution of Waddill a “tragedy.”

“Dr. Waddill was an outstanding physician,” Weedman said. “He was raked over the coals on a murder charge that he did not deserve. . . . It was devastating to him. Why (the case) was prosecuted so vigorously I’ll never know. The evidence was not there.”

The Waddill case began the morning of March 2, 1977, when Mary Weaver, an unwed Huntington Beach teen-ager and daughter of an area high school principal, underwent a saline abortion at Westminster Community Hospital, which no longer exists.

After injecting the salt solution into the teen-ager’s womb, Waddill left, leaving instructions to the nurses to call if there were any problems.

About 10 that night, the baby--estimated to be anywhere from 20 weeks to 30 weeks old--was born alive.

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When nurses saw the baby move and make a faint noise, they immediately called Waddill. Nurses would later testify that Waddill instructed them over the phone, “Don’t do a goddamned thing for that baby except oxygen.” The doctor said he believed any “heroic” life-saving measures would be futile because there was no hope the baby would survive.

Live births from saline abortions were rare back then, according to medical authorities. Saline isn’t used today because of the potential health risks to the mother, said Dr. Andrea Rapkin, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA.

When Waddill arrived at the hospital and viewed the baby in the nursery, he would later testify, “The abortus looked absolutely lifeless . . . for all intents and purposes, dead.”

Later, he said he did see the infant make some gasps. But he insisted they were associated with the baby going through the final throes of death. He still believed the infant had no hope for survival after being bathed for hours in the deadly saline solution.

Waddill then ordered everyone out of the nursery, except for pediatrician Ronald J. Cornelson.

What happened next to the baby has ultimately come down to Cornelson’s word against Waddill’s.

According to Waddill, the baby died from the massive exposure to the saline solution. But a few days after the incident, Cornelson told police that he had watched in horror as Waddill tried three times to strangle the infant before it finally succeeded on the fourth attempt.

“It was a nightmare,” Cornelson, who became the chief witness against Waddill, said recently of the trial.

The fiercest battles during the trial were waged by the medical experts, according to then Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright.

The defense strongly challenged the conclusions reached by Orange County pathologists who said there was physical evidence that the baby was strangled. Waddill’s attorney also called experts who testified that doctors often have to make decisions on not to prolong life when death is certain.

Experts differed on whether the baby was even alive outside the womb and its age. Even the prosecution’s experts acknowledged that the baby could not have lived for any real length of time.

Under the law then and now, doctors can perform an abortion up until the time a fetus is considered viable--able to survive outside the womb. That standard of viability, however, has changed over the years as medical technology has enabled increasingly younger premature infants to be saved, according to UCLA’s Rapkin.

Viability at one time was 28 weeks, then 24 weeks. Now, many doctors won’t perform abortions if the fetus is older than 22 weeks because of the potential legal risk, Rapkin said.

If the fetus was born alive, but was judged to be less than 24 weeks old and not viable, no attempt would probably be made to resuscitate or prolong the life of the fetus, Rapkin said.

Despite all the ethical issues that were raised during the Waddill case, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Byron McMillan, who presided over the trial, says it “never should have been tried as a morality case. It was a murder case.”

Reaction to Gallagher’s book--his first--ranges from curiosity to anger from those involved in the case. Gallagher, 50, says he drew ideas for the book not only from the Waddill proceedings, but also from other criminal cases, his imagination and years of experience as a lawyer.

Waddill, whose personal and professional life was shattered by the criminal accusations, is disturbed that the incident is being resurrected in a book, says Weedman, the doctor’s former criminal defense attorney. Waddill, according to Gallagher, has not seen an advance copy of the book.

Once one of the most successful gynecologists/obstetricians in Orange County, Waddill estimated that his lucrative practice grossed between $300,000 to $500,000 annually before he was charged with murder.

The allegations against him destroyed all that, said Weedman. Despite the dismissal of the charges and his determination to rebuild his medical career, Waddill eventually lost his private practice, Weedman said.

For a time, he took a new direction. He went to law school and graduated. But never took the bar, said his former lawyer. Now 57, Waddill is still a licensed doctor and works at a medical clinic in Orange County.

Waddill was even sued by Weaver, the mother of the infant. She sought $7 million in damages, alleging that she was traumatized by the events and accused Waddill of misdiagnosing how far along she was in the pregnancy when he agreed to perform the abortion. In court documents she indicated she never would have had the abortion had she known how old the fetus was.

The suit, according to her Newport Beach attorney, Joseph Angelo, was settled out of court, but he declined to discuss the terms.

Even Chatterton, the man who prosecuted Waddill, acknowledges the traumatic effect the trials had on the doctor’s life.

“It’s sort of a shame,” said Chatterton, now a criminal defense attorney. “He paid a substantial price for what happened. He is still suffering. I’m a little sympathetic . . . that he has not been able to regain his practice.”

Although Waddill authorized his attorney to speak on his behalf, the doctor declined to be interviewed. Waddill, according to Weedman, “does not want to be associated with the book, nor do anything that might create interest in it and contribute to its sale.”

Despite changing attitudes and viewpoints on abortion, Chatterton and others believe prosecutors today would still try the Waddill case.

Although some believed their may have been a strong anti-abortion sentiment in the district attorney’s office that led to Waddill’s prosecution, Enright denies that.

“This case would still be prosecuted today” given the pediatrician’s claim that “he saw the doctor put his hand around the baby’s throat and strangle it--administering the final coup de grace. The law hasn’t changed in this regard,” said Enright, now a defense attorney in Santa Ana.

As for Waddill, he once insisted that although he performed abortions, he never really had any strong abortion rights sentiments.

“I wished we lived in a society that didn’t require any kind of terminations of pregnancies except for severe problems, like genetic disorders or something like that,” said Waddill after the case ended.

“But I don’t think that women should be punished because one egg and one sperm come together. . . . Or that the child should be punished and be brought into a situation where it doesn’t have the very best.”


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