For several years, pro-life activists in Sacramento, Calif., did their best within the law to alert women to the imminent danger they faced by choosing the Feminist Women’s Health Clinic on J Street as the place to, as they would say inside the abortion clinic, “terminate their pregnancy.”
The five pro-life activists would quietly counsel women either entering or leaving the clinic about the unsafe and unsound medical procedures taking place inside. Their passion wasn’t aroused simply by the fact that the clinic was aborting babies. In this case, the medical director of the facility, Dr. Bruce Steir, also had a hideous track record of gross negligence with his adult patients.
In 1985, for instance, he had botched a Caesarean section, leaving a portion of the placenta inside the woman’s body. As a result, the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance placed him on a five-year probation period for “unprofessional conduct.” Under the terms of his probation, he was not permitted to perform abortions in hospitals. The state’s standards, however, left open a loophole permitting him to continue his work in clinics.
Only six days after accepting the terms of the probation, Steir perforated the uterus of a patient at a San Francisco clinic. Steir neglected the patient and, according to the state medical board, “made no operative report or post-operative report until approximately eight months later, and this was in response to an investigation.” The board charged him with “gross negligence.”
Steir also left a four-inch piece of wire from a broken surgical instrument in a woman’s abdomen and failed to inform her. He lied about past malpractice to obtain employment at hospitals. In 1991, the state board petitioned the attorney general’s office to revoke his license to practice medicine.
But while all this was going on, the J Street Five were being ordered by a court to take their peaceful sidewalk counseling further and further away from the clinic — effectively denying patients information about the potential horrors awaiting them at the hands of Dr. Steir. In 1989, the clinic succeeded in getting Judge James T. Ford to ban their counseling from a 51-foot section of public sidewalk. Two years later, the same judge granted a permanent injunction against pro-life counseling and imposed a $99,100 fine on the pro-lifers, three of whom hadn’t been to the clinic since the first injunction.
Financially, the pro-life activists’ lives were devastated by the imposition of fines, liens and requirements to post bonds for appeals of this outrageous abuse of the First Amendment. Some were forced to declare bankruptcy. Mind you, at the same time pro-life speech was being banned from this public property, large pro-abortion demonstrations were being permitted, even encouraged.
If the story ended right there, it would be tragic enough. But, sadly it does not. Because, effectively insulated from criticism, Dr. Steir continued his practice — in Sacramento and elsewhere. Last month, he was charged with murder for allowing one of his patients to bleed to death after an abortion performed at another clinic. It seems Dr. Steir perforated the uterus of Sharon Hampton, 27, and refused to hospitalize her.
No matter where you stand in the abortion debate, this story illustrates why the founders of this nation considered freedom of speech a sacrosanct and inalienable right — one that could not be abrogated by Congress, let alone an activist local judge. The free-flow of information, even information that makes people uncomfortable, is essential to a free society.
Dr. Steir was a walking time bomb. His license to practice medicine had been revoked in Florida years before he ever went to California to practice his butchery. People knew it. They wanted to share that information with his potential victims. They risked everything to do it in a legal and peaceful way, and were nonetheless harshly victimized for exercising their constitutional rights and the following the dictates of their conscience.
This case ought to serve as a wakeup call to the double-standard that is being imposed on pro-life protests across the nation. It should also alert us to the double-standard that offers political protection to medical incompetents like Dr. Steir to perform thousands of abortions despite track records of gross negligence.