ACLU Investigates Political Bias by the Medical Board of California

ACLU Releases Study on Preventing Unfair Prosecution of Abortion Providers

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ACLU of Northern CA

The ACLU is releasing a study entitled "Preventing Unfair Prosecution of Abortion Providers: An Investigation into Political Bias by the Medical Board of California" that examines the case of Dr. Bruce Steir, who was referred by the Medical Board for criminal prosecution after a patient died following a second-trimester abortion. In an effort to determine why Dr. Steir was singled out for criminal prosecution, the report compares the Medical Board's treatment of Dr. Steir to its treatment of other doctors whose patients died in their care.

"The research shows that other doctors with more egregious cases were treated less harshly than Dr. Steir," said Phyllida Burlingame, researcher and author of the study. "It also shows that an anti-abortion activist who has had a close relationship with the Medical Board was inappropriately involved in the case against him. These findings suggest that political bias played a role in the board's unusually severe treatment of Dr. Steir."

Dr. Steir was prosecuted for second-degree murder. In an independent analysis the California Medical Association concluded that Dr. Steir's actions could not be characterized as criminal act. However, faced with a jury trial in extremely conservative Riverside County, the 69-year-old doctor pled guilty to the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, for which he may receive up to a year in County jail. He awaits sentencing on May 26. Dr. Steir is the first California doctor in over 25 years to face murder charges stemming from an abortion-related death.

Dr. Steir, a San Francisco doctor, traveled to Southern California because women in Riverside had an unmet need for abortion services. The anti-abortion movement has attempted to limit California women's access to abortion by conducting a campaign to harass doctors who provide abortions. This campaign includes an effort to impose harsh sanctions on doctors for medical mistakes and to enact burdensome licensing laws on doctors' offices and clinics where abortions are performed.

Some of the particular findings of the study, which looked at five years of disciplinary records from death cases, include:

  • The majority of doctors whose negligence contributes to the death of their patients are not stripped of their licenses by the Medical Board of California, let alone criminally prosecuted;
  • The Medical Board shields itself from public scrutiny by refusing to disclose information regarding its referral of doctors to District Attorneys for criminal prosecution;
  • The Medical Board acted against Dr. Steir with extreme haste and vigor - and with incorrect information;
  • An anti-abortion activist was inappropriately involved in the Medical Board's case against Dr. Steir.

The study concludes: "Ultimately, the research shows that Dr. Steir deserved to lose his license, but he did not deserve to be singled out for criminal prosecution."

As a result of the study, the ACLU of Northern California calls for the Medical Board to be open about its policies and procedures; to show fairness and consistency in pursuing complaints against doctors; and to reform practices and policies that allow bias to influence the Medical Board's actions. 

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