Dr. Leon Sabath
This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on May 21, 1974
Last week the Massachusetts House passed a bill outlawing abortions after 19 weeks of pregnancy, except when the mother's life or physical or mental health are endangered — contrary to the Supreme Court ruling last year which allowed abortions through the second trimester or about 26 weeks. The bill also posed a challenge to the privacy considerations implicit in the High Court ruling. The new legislation stipulates that if the woman is less than 20 weeks pregnant, her physician must deem her abortion "necessary"; if over 20 weeks and her reasons for seeking the abortion are not satisfactory, the physician must seek informed consent from her husband. But it's not merely the doctor the husband and the woman who deliberate her fate. After 20 weeks, the state Attorney General, too, is in on the decision. Finally, the bill makes abortions potentially less accessible and more expensive by requiring that procedures after 10 weeks be done in a hospital and that after 19 weeks, life sustaining equipment must be available to the fetus.
A companion bill barring any experimentation or study of fetuses due for abortion or of fetal material, live or dead, was hammered out last Monday in a conference of doctors, legislators and Right to Lifers in the House Speaker's office, and was, as of this writing, soon to go to the floor for a vote.
Both bills reflect the issues in two secret indictments handed down in April on five Boston physicians all associated with Boston City Hospital: Dr. Kenneth Edelin charged with manslaughter of a late-term fetus after an abortion, and Drs. Leon Sabath, Leonard Berman, David Charles and Agneta Philipson for experimenting on fetuses. The latter four researchers had written an article in the New England Journal of Medicine detailing the findings of a study on the effects of antibiotics on pregnant women and their aborted fetuses. The appearance of the report last June prompted an outcry by Right to Life forces, a subsequent hearing last fall in the Boston City Council and eventually an investigation by the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. During the search through Boston City Hospital records for material leading to the Journal-related charges, the prosecutor discovered a fetus in storage that Edelin several months before had delivered, the find resulting in his indictment as well.
The Phoenix asked Dr. Edelin and Dr. Sabath for their views on several questions relating to the bills now pending, with the understanding that neither could talk about his case. The interviews were conducted separately – Edelin's one evening in his office in City Hospital's Ob/Gyn building and Sabath's the next afternoon in his cramped quarters across the street in the Channing Laboratories. In fact, the two men have never met.
Edelin was in his blues, the uniform doctors wear in the operating room. He had just completed three births and was prepared to work late into the night on five more women upstairs in labor. Still his conversation was relaxed. A light-skinned black, Edelin grew up in the D.C. ghettoes. Every night as a child looking out of his window he could see street fights and pushers. He knew about abortions early in life.
Sabath, by contrast, is a self-proclaimed member of the establishment who seems to have been educated by the indictments to the inequities of the American system of law enforcement. He has a test tube wit appropriate only to laboratory surroundings. Of the whereabouts of an assistant in another room drawing blood samples from a volunteer, it was said, "She's out sucking blood." The cups in which we were served coffee are labelled [sic]: "Carbenicillin: Test Me." And when asked what he thought of abortion, he drew an analogy with contraception, saying that no woman should be forced to give birth to potential life: "There are nunneries all over the world where eggs are going unfertilized."
Indicted Doctors Talk on Abortion Issues*
Question: How did you feel when you heard about the indictments?
Edelin: I was in clinic that morning seeing patients. As usual, I was running overtime. I don't know whether it's that I'm slow or I take too much time. And I usually see extra patients. Anyway, I finished and had a meeting and as I was walking back to the offices, the secretary said Mr. Guiney, the director of the hospital, wanted me to call. He told me that Mr. Flanagan (the assistant D.A.) wanted me to call him.