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Matters of Life and Death : New Book Puts Back in the Spotlight 16-Year-Old Case of an Orange County Doctor Tried Twice but Never Convicted of Strangling to Death a Baby After an Abortion He Had Performed

February 02, 1993|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been 16 years since a frightened teen-ager braved her way through mobs of screaming protesters and glaring camera lights outside a Santa Ana courthouse to testify against her doctor in one of the first and most controversial abortion/murder cases in the country.

As noisy scuffles broke out in the hallways between abortion rights and anti-abortion activists, Dr. William Waddill sat inside the Santa Ana courtroom on trial for murder.

Waddill, a successful Huntington Harbour obstetrician, was accused of strangling to death a baby who had survived the abortion he had performed on the 18-year-old.

He eventually was tried twice for murder, but never convicted in connection with the baby's death.

"It was an incredibly tragic case," recalled attorney Charles Weedman, who defended Waddill. "People were being ruled by their emotions."

Now, with the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion and President Clinton's recent order further lifting restrictions on abortion and family planning, the political and religious furor over the issue rages on.

And nearly two decades after the Waddill trials and another abortion case involving Dr. Kenneth Edelin in Boston galvanized anti-abortion advocates, comes a novel--loosely based on Waddill's prosecution--that threatens to open old wounds.

"The Fourth Trimester" (Rubric Press, $16.95)--written by Orange lawyer Kevin Gallagher--is expected in bookstores next week.

Though the book is fiction, Gallagher admits some of its striking similarities to the Waddill case focus on arguments over ethical and medical issues that permeated the trials and continue to weigh heavily on doctors today.

"The alleged infanticide case against Waddill brought for the first time the Roe vs. Wade decision to the courthouse steps in Southern California," Gallagher said.

Like the Edelin trial in Boston, the Waddill case served as an early lightning rod for angry and sometimes violent abortion protests.

Neither jury in the Waddill trials could reach a unanimous decision and the charge was finally dismissed after the second jury in 1979 voted 11 to 1 for acquittal.

The trials turned heavily on the ethical and medical issues of life and death and a doctor's responsibility over whether to use artificial measures to prolong the life of an individual who faces certain death. Aside from the allegations that Waddill strangled the infant, the prosecution contended that the doctor failed to try to save the baby and could be convicted for that alone.

In the Boston case, Edelin was convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of a male fetus during a 17-year-old girl's abortion in 1973. His conviction was later overturned. At issue in the case was a question of "viability," or whether at the time of the abortion, the fetus was viable and had the ability to live outside the womb.

While the legal ordeals of Waddill and Edelin have long ended, ethical issues involving decisions on life and death confront doctors today more than ever, notes Dr. Stanley Korenman, associate dean for medical ethics at UCLA.

As progress in medical technology and ability to save lives advances, doctors are increasingly forced to decide when an individual's life should be saved by expensive, artificial measures, Korenman said.

"It's a real struggle. We doctors are trying to do the right thing. We are trying to preserve useful life," he said.

But former Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Chatterton contended: "In the Waddill case, the doctor had a duty to do something to try to save the baby's life, regardless of the fact that she was an abortion survivor or how uncertain the quality of her life would be.

"He can't just sit there and watch the baby die. A woman's right to an abortion doesn't mean the baby can be killed if it survives that abortion," Chatterton had argued to the jury in 1979.

However, defense attorney Weedman called the prosecution of Waddill a "tragedy."

"Dr. Waddill was an outstanding physician," Weedman said. "He was raked over the coals on a murder charge that he did not deserve. . . . It was devastating to him. Why (the case) was prosecuted so vigorously I'll never know. The evidence was not there."

The Waddill case began the morning of March 2, 1977, when Mary Weaver, an unwed Huntington Beach teen-ager and daughter of an area high school principal, underwent a saline abortion at Westminster Community Hospital, which no longer exists.

After injecting the salt solution into the teen-ager's womb, Waddill left, leaving instructions to the nurses to call if there were any problems.

About 10 that night, the baby--estimated to be anywhere from 20 weeks to 30 weeks old--was born alive.

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