Monday, March 08, 2021

March 8: For the Love of Money

SUMMARY: Rita McDowell, age 16, died March 8, 1975 after an incomplete abortion performed by Robert Sherman at Columbia Family Planning Clinic in Washington, DC.

On March 4, 1975, Robert Julius Sherman (pictured, left) performed a safe and legal abortion on Rita, who was in the second trimester of her pregnancy at his Columbia Family Planning Clinic. Rather than admit her to the hospital for the then-standard saline abortion, Sherman performed a vacuum aspiration abortion usually used for first trimester abortions. He used a 7 mm. cannula, which would be too small for the parts of a 12-week fetus to pass through and would therefore leave parts of the fetus, if not the entire fetus, still in her uterus.

When Sherman discharged Rita, he told her mother that she would probably expel the fetus that night. As they left the office, Rita told her mother, "Oh, Mama, I feel like I had one hundred needles in me."

Rita did not expel the fetus. Instead, she developed a fever. Her mother called Sherman's facility on March 5 to seek care for her daughter. She said that Sherman would not speak to her, and that the receptionist told her to bring Rita in two days later.

In the early morning hours of March 7, Rita awoke screaming, then collapsed in her mother's arms. Doctors at the hospital where Rita was taken removed the macerated fetus, but she died from massive infection just after midnight on March 8.

An investigation into Rita's death revealed evidence that Sherman deliberately performed incomplete abortions so that he could charge an additional $150 for follow-up care. He was performing anywhere from six to 25 abortions daily. 

Sherman was charged with murder in Rita's death, and prosecutors presented witnesses and evidence that Sherman re-used disposable canulas; used unsterized tenaculums, sounds, and forceps; dumped the urine he collected for pregnancy tests instead of performing the tests; failed to do pathology examinations of abortion tissues; allowed a nurse's aide to perform surgery; and falsified medical records. In Rita's case, he tampered with her records, fabricated an appointment book, and faked a phone message.

Testimony during his trial indicated that Sherman would send patients home with green plastic trash bags to collect fetuses that they expelled at home after their incomplete abortions. He also performed saline abortions on an outpatient basis, injecting the saline then sending the patients home. 

After the trial ended in a hung jury, Sherman pleaded guilty to 25 counts of perjury in exchange for dropping the murder charge in Rita's death. He was sentenced to 60 - 90 months but was released after serving only 22 months. He moved to Massachusetts, where he had originally been licensed, in July of 1981 and set up practice there. Only when People magazine published an article about Rita's death did anybody in Sherman's home state think to address whether he should be practicing medicine at all. 

In a bid to keep his license, Sherman placed the blame on the hospital where Rita had died. An associate, Dr. Karl Jonas, told the New York Times, "I believe he was persecuted. He was taking care of a group of [Medicaid] patients that most doctors wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. You can't practice a carriage trade on them. He was casual, undoubtedly too casual, possibly careless, but certainly not criminal."

Rita's mother sued Sherman, and he settled out-of-court for $525,000. Sherman sued his insurance company for refusing to provide him with an attorney and to pay the settlement on his behalf, mainly based on legal issues regarding the policy rather than regarding the malpractice itself. I've been unable to sort out the legalese to figure out if Rita's mother ever was compensated for her daughter's death.

Watch Set Up for Death on YouTube.


No comments: