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Keith Russell; Obstetrician Championed Birth Control

September 07, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Keith P. Russell, champion of therapeutic abortion and better birth control methods who delivered more than 8,000 babies during a half-century career in obstetrics and gynecology, has died. He was 80.

Russell, who retired from the staff of California Hospital Medical Center only weeks ago, died Monday in Los Angeles of heart disease.

Consulted by news media as well as legislators and other government officials, Russell led medical professionals in their fight to liberalize the California abortion law in 1967. He advocated decisions on abortion as a right of privacy to be decided only by the pregnant woman and her doctor, a position the state Supreme Court sanctioned in 1972.

Prior to the changes, Russell said as head of the California Committee on Therapeutic Abortion, medical personnel often risked arrest if they terminated a pregnancy without strong proof that the mother's life depended on it.

Using figures from 1969 and 1970, Russell said only 3% of women requesting newly legalized abortions cited physical health as the problem. Another 5% cited rape or incest, he said, but the great majority--92%--sought abortions because of mental health.

During the increasingly liberal 1960s, Russell also championed the then-new birth control pill for the same reasons as therapeutic abortions--to protect mental as well as physical health.

Acknowledging that the pill had some side effects harmful to some women, he said it was nonetheless a medically sound aid to family planning.

"In the vast majority of cases, they [birth control pills] are prescribed as prophylaxes," he told The Times in 1965, "against some of the major social illnesses of our times--the unplanned, unwanted pregnancy with resultant emotional and physical maternal breakdown, and a high incidence of criminal abortion; the unwanted child with a lifetime of psychiatric and emotional disturbance; the late-in-life pregnancy with its increased incidence of maternal and newborn complications, to name a few."

As a key spokesman for gynecologists nationally, Russell also spoke out against arguments that introduction of the birth control pill would lead to widespread immoral sex.

"The growing ease in obtaining birth control information and devices will in no way lead to a corresponding increase in promiscuity," Russell told Cal State L.A. students in 1965. "It is not encouraged by new devices to reduce the fear of conception and disease. Pregnancy happens after the fact and has nothing to do with initiating the act."

A professor at the USC School of Medicine, Russell was active in 14 medical groups. He twice served as president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and was president of the Los Angeles chapter. He was on the board of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles for several years.

Russell also served as president of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.

He was widely published, writing more than 70 articles and editing the popular book for prospective mothers, "Eastman's Expectant Motherhood." Despite his busy speaking and writing schedule, Russell also liked to point out the number of babies he delivered--about 8,000 at his retirement.

Born in Baker, Ore., Russell met the little girl who was to become his wife of 55 years, Betty Jane, when both were in elementary school in Portland. Russell earned his medical degree at the University of Oregon and moved to Los Angeles to complete his training. He joined California Hospital in 1945 and over the years served as chief of staff as well as head of prenatal services.

Often honored, he received the award of excellence from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In addition to his wife, Russell is survived by a son, Keith Jr.; two daughters, Susan Judd and Donna Lynne Russell; four granddaughters and one great-grandson.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. James Episcopal Church, 3903 Wilshire Blvd..

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Keith P. Russell, M.D., Women's Health Center Memorial Fund at California Hospital Medical Center, 1401 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90015 or to Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, 1920 Marengo St., Los Angeles, CA 90033-9971.

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