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Doctor Pleads Guilty in Death After Abortion

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Bruce Steir, the first California abortion doctor to be charged with murder in a generation, pleaded guilty on the eve of trial Wednesday to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

That charge, part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, is based on a finding of “gross negligence” and a lack of “due caution” in the care of a 27-year-old patient who bled to death from a perforated uterus in December 1996.

Steir probably will serve less than a year in jail and will be on probation for as much as five years under the agreement tentatively approved Wednesday by Riverside County Superior Court Judge Vilia G. Sherman. The deal most likely will spare the 68-year-old physician, who surrendered his medical license in March 1997, any state prison time.

“I didn’t want to endure the psychological trauma of a trial,” Steir said after he emerged from the courtroom with his wife. “My wife and I want to put this behind us. It’s been 2 1/2 years, and [it’s] been like a Kafkaesque nightmare.”

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The plea bargain ends a contentious, high-profile case with symbolic significance to both sides in the debate over abortion rights. It also has drawn attention from doctor groups who fear the chilling effects of criminalizing medical misdeeds.

Steir, a circuit-riding San Francisco doctor who regularly flew to clinics in underserved regions, was accused of puncturing the uterus of Sharon Hamptlon in a Moreno Valley clinic, then--knowing he had done that--leaving for the airport without sending her to a hospital. Hamptlon, a fast-food worker on Medi-Cal, bled to death in her mother’s car on the way back to Barstow, her 3-year-old son by her side.

The crux of the second-degree murder case was a conversation between Steir and a sonogram technician during Hamptlon’s second-trimester abortion. Prosecutors said Steir indicated that he might have perforated the uterus--a standard complication that requires hospitalization. But Steir’s attorney argued that the conversation went differently, that the doctor did not know he had perforated the uterus.

At that time, Steir, who had had a series of run-ins with the state medical board since 1988, was on probation with the board and did not have a physician monitor, as was required.

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Abortion opponents used the World Wide Web to publicize Steir’s alleged wrongdoing, calling him a butcher. His defenders, who showed up at his many court hearings, portrayed him as a brave warrior, willing to help women with virtually nowhere else to go.

The Riverside County district attorney’s office insisted throughout that the case had nothing to do with abortion politics, only Steir’s failure to act on a life-threatening complication. But the defense attorney, Doron Weinberg, argued that Steir was selectively prosecuted because of his commitment to abortion rights.

On Wednesday, both attorneys said the abortion debate played some role in their decisions to settle.

“This case is not about abortion,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kennis Clark. “But when you have such a hot button issue, you always run the risk of not being able to persuade 12 minds to either position.”

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Weinberg maintained that “this case should never have entered the criminal arena.” But since it did, he said, his client was faced with “a lay jury . . . in the position of second-guessing a doctor’s decisions in the context of the most emotionally laden political issue of our era.”

And the geography was not ideal. He surmised that “the strength of opposition to abortion in this community is fairly substantial.”

The plea bargain drew mixed reactions from others with emotional or political investments in its outcome.

“Well, it’s obviously not what you would like out of a homicide,” said Jan Carroll, a legislative analyst for the California Pro-life Council in Sacramento. “It is at least positive that one doctor who has killed a patient through abortion is going to pay some price, though it looks like the price won’t be commensurate to the damage.”

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Carol Downer, an attorney and longtime abortion rights activist, said she was “incredibly sad. I feel there was no case against Dr. Steir, [but] we support Dr. Steir’s right to preserve what is left of his personal means and to put this behind him.”

An attorney with the California Medical Assn. said the case raises “grave concerns” among doctors in general about their exposure to criminal charges. The case “should never have been brought criminally, and certainly not as a second-degree murder case,” said Susan Penney, the association’s legal counsel.

Hamptlon’s mother, Doris, who accompanied her daughter to the clinic, learned of the settlement when a reporter called her Barstow home.

“This is coming close to closure, which is what I want,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. But she bristled at Steir’s potential jail time. “It should be more than a year,” she said.

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