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Woman on Mend After Controversial Abortion : Health: Patient was in a coma when procedure was done. Her physician says it helped her recovery from car accident head injuries.

January 13, 1990|DAVID TREADWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A Long Island woman, Nancy Klein, who underwent a controversial abortion to help her chances of recovery from a coma after a car accident in 1988, is now able to talk and recognize family members and is looking forward to the day when she can return home, her doctor said Friday.

"She's come a very long way," said Dr. Caroline McCagg, medical director of the New Jersey head injury center where the 32-year-old woman has been undergoing treatment. "I feel certain that the abortion helped facilitate the rehabilitation process."

Nancy Klein's husband, Martin, a 35-year-old accountant, fought anti-abortionists all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to have the abortion performed. The case, which raged in courts for several weeks before being resolved in the husband's favor, drew national attention because of its potential for restricting abortion rights.

McCagg said that Mrs. Klein has made "nice, slow and steady progress" since being admitted last March to the Center for Head Injuries at the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Rehabilitation Center in Edison, N.J.

"She is talking, she is feeding herself, she's eating regular food," the doctor said in a telephone interview. "She propels her own wheelchair and is starting to dress herself. Each month she's doing something she hasn't done before."

Moreover, when Mrs. Klein's husband and 4-year-old daughter, Arielle, visit her, "you have the sense she communicates with them in a special way," McCagg said. "Her big goal is to get home."

The doctor said that the abortion improved Mrs. Klein's chances of recovery from the head injuries she suffered in the car accident because "we were able to be more aggressive with her, provide better nutrition and provide medication that might have been a problem otherwise."

However, although Mrs. Klein is regaining her memory she had to be told about the accident--which took place on Long Island on Dec. 13, 1988--and also will probably have to told that she was pregnant at the time and underwent an abortion, McCagg added.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said that the woman's remarkable recovery is a "dramatic example of the importance of Roe vs. Wade," the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established legal abortion as a right.

"You could have 'anti-choice' zealots everywhere getting involved in these personal decisions (about abortion) if there was not a fundamentally protected constitutional right," Michelman said.

But David O'Sheen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said that the good news about the woman would be even "more wonderful if her child was alive."

"It's speculation what effect the abortion might have had" on her rebounding from her coma, he said.

Jay Dankner, a Manhattan attorney who represents Martin Klein, said that doctors at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island told the husband that his wife's chances for recovery would greatly improve if she had an abortion.

Last January, Martin Klein asked a judge to declare him his wife's legal guardian so that he could authorize the abortion. But the ruling granting his request was challenged by two Long Island anti-abortion activists, John Broderick and John Short.

Broderick, an attorney who has represented the militant anti-abortion group known as Operation Rescue, sought to get guardianship of the 4-month-old fetus, while Short attempted to have himself named guardian of Nancy Klein.

The case went to court, with Broderick and Short losing each time but appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The abortion was performed on Feb. 11 at North Shore after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to hear the appeal. Nancy Klein was about 17 weeks pregnant at the time.

Last June, Martin Klein filed a lawsuit in state court seeking $20 million in damages for mental anguish. The suit names as defendants North Shore and both Broderick and Shore.

Dankner said that Martin Klein's decision to seek an abortion for his wife was based on competent medical advice and was supported by his wife's parents, Frederic and Anne Zusselman, of Delray Beach, Fla.

"This wasn't a flippant decision," Dankner said, adding that Martin Klein felt that the hospital and the two anti-abortion advocates were "playing Russian roulette" with his wife.

But Broderick, in an interview Friday, contended that a detailed hearing before a justice in the state Supreme Court in Nassau County found that there was no medical necessity for the abortion.

"It's wonderful news that Mrs. Klein has recovered," Broderick said. "But I'm sure her recovery had nothing to do with the abortion. She had a head injury; she was carrying the baby in her womb."

He also argued that "there was every indication beforehand" that Nancy Klein wanted the baby. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's resentful she lost the baby," he added.

Dankner countered that "the feeling quite strongly of the entire family is she would have supported this decision totally."

McCagg said that she believed Mrs. Klein "would be sad, as any woman would" after losing a baby. But, she added: "My sense of her as a person now and what I've learned about her from the past is she will handle it well."

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