Former abortion doc recalls medical career &mdash and jail time

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In 1951, during Bruce Steir’s sophomore year at the University of Florida, a recruiting representative for the U.S. Foreign Service quickly advised him to consider fields other than diplomacy.

“Please do not take this as a derogatory statement, but the simple fact is that you are a short Jew,” the rep said.

Thus ended Steir’s dream of becoming a diplomat. Deterred but not defeated, he turned to pre-med. And so began his storied medical career — one that had its share of peaks and very public valleys, and is recounted in the 77-year-old San Francisco resident’s self-published memoir, “Jailhouse Journal of an Ob/Gyn.”

Judging by his grandfatherly looks, one wouldn’t think the secular Jew has done time. But he’s probably the only member of the California Senior Legislature, a 120-member advisory body, who can offer an expert opinion on prison reform.

“It made me feel like there are a lot of people in jail who probably don’t belong there,” Steir says.

In the late ’90s, Steir found himself at the center of a legal and political maelstrom: He was charged with second-degree murder after a woman under his care died from complications following a second-trimester abortion.

The Riverside County case became a lightning rod for pro- and anti-abortion activists alike. To Steir’s credit, the California Medical Association concluded that his actions “cannot be characterized as criminally negligent behavior, manslaughter, or any kind of criminal act.” In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California concluded Steir was a victim of anti-abortion politics and should only have lost his license.

However, with his life savings already depleted from legal costs, the doctor pleaded guilty to involuntar manslaughter in addition to agreeing to forfeit his license. He did so in order to avoid a trial, further legal costs and jail time — or so he thought.

Soon thereafter, the judge handed down a six-month sentence. Steir, in his late 60s at the time, says this was a “breach of judicial promise,” recounting a meeting in his memoir where the judge allegedly agreed in private to no jail time.

“Unfortunately I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Steir of the conservative atmosphere in Riverside County.

Despite Steir’s high-profile case, most of his book focuses on the rest of his career, which took him around the world. It also presents tales that revolve around society’s evolving attitudes toward abortion, and Jews.

For example, in 1964, Steir was working as a medical officer on a U.S. air base in France when the German wife of an airman asked him to deliver her baby. There was another doctor available, but the woman thought he was Jewish and might have ill will toward Germans. Rather than inform her that the other doctor was Christian and he was Jewish, Steir delivered the baby.

After settling in California, Steir spent 12 years as the medical director of the four Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Northern California. Amid anti-abortion fervor in the early ’90s, when Steir traveled to the center in Redding, federal marshals escorted him as a safety measure.

“The only place I ever felt threatened was in Redding,” says Steir. “There’s a lot of survivalists … so there was a fear I might get shot.”

Still, he was never tempted to quit doing abortions. He says he drew a lot of satisfaction from providing the service. He also preferred not having to get up in the middle of the night to deliver babies, and noted that abortion patients were often far more appreciative.

“I got way more thanks from women who needed abortions than women who had babies,” Steir says.

As for the book’s takeaway message: He hopes readers understand the need for society to be vigilant about abortion rights.

“We must be prepared for changes in Roe vs. Wade, and to protect women’s rights,” he said.

Information about “Jailhouse Journal of an Ob/Gyn” by Bruce Steir: www.jailhousejournal.com.