Tuesday, June 14, 2022

June 14, 1977: First Known Death at a National Abortion Federation Member Clinic

Eighteen-year-old Barbaralee Davis had already lived an intense life. With her mother's permission, she had married David A. Davis II in September of 1973 at the age of only 15. She was separated from her husband and was caring for a 3-year-old son. Barbaralee had a history of irregular periods, but when she noticed symptoms of pregnancy she visited a local hospital for a pregnancy test, which came out negative. However, her symptoms continued so she returned to the hospital two weeks later and this time the pregnancy test was positive.

Hope Clinic for Women
Barbaralee requested an abortion referral. A local women's group sent her to Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois. Hope Clinic, about a two-hour drive from Barbaralee's home, was a member of the newly founded National Abortion Federation. Her abortion was scheduled for about one week later.

When Barbaralee arrived at the clinic on June 14, 1977, it had been five months since her last menstrual period.

Hope Medical Director Hector Zavalos examined Barbaralee and concluded that she was 11 weeks pregnant. Zavalos performed a suction curettage abortion. 

Barbaralee was moved to the recovery room. The last recording of her blood pressure, taken about 45 minutes after the abortion, was low, at 100/68.

Barbaralee attended a post-abortion counseling session, during which she was pale and reporting lower abdominal cramping. She was kept for observation an additional half an hour.

At some point staff told Barbaralee's worried sister, Rita Tripp, that there had been complications but that everything would be fine.

About two hours after the abortion, Barbaralee reportedly told staff that she felt better and asked to be sent home. Barbaralee was not given a discharge examination. Zavalos simply discharged her, asserting that she seemed to be okay. However, according to the CDC's investigators, Barbaralee was showing symptoms "suggestive of internal hemorrhage."  Her sister, Rita Tripp, said that Barbaralee was pale and weak when she helped her out to the car.

Barbaralee lay in the back seat on the way home. When they arrived, Rita said, Barbaralee told her that she felt like something was wrong. 

Rita said that she tried to call Zavalos but was unable to reach him.

Barbaralee remained lethargic and seemed to go to sleep. About two hours after returning home she tried to stand up but fainted. She was rushed to the Pinckneyville hospital by ambulance, where an emergency hysterectomy was attempted to save her life. Barbaralee died during the surgery, leaving her child motherless.

The autopsy found the face and spinal column of Barbaralee's baby embedded in a hole in her uterus. There were two quarts of blood in her abdomen. Barbaralee had bled to death.

The medical examiner noted: "A very large retroperitoneal hematoma is present with dissection of blood along right ureter. A 4 mc. tear is noted on the right anterior surface of the lower third of the uterus and a large amount of blood, estimated at 2000 ccs. is present in the pelvis. Two fetal parts, the face and thoracic spinal column, are embedded in a 700 cc. fresh hematoma inside the uterus."

Illinois law placed a 12-week limit on outpatient abortions. Zavalos told CDC investigators that he thought Barbaralee had been only 11 weeks pregnant even though her last normal menstrual period had been five months earlier. The clinic records examined by CDC staff said that the gross examination of the fetal tissue removed during the abortion was consistent with an 11-week pregnancy. However, the medical examiner drew a different conclusion, based on the tissue that had been left embedded in Barbaralee's uterus:

In an attempt to estimate the length of gestation in the absence of the whole fetus, the two parts, namely the face, less the crown, and the thoracic vertebral column without the rump, are laid end to end. Together they measure 9 cm. A conservative estimate of the crown to rump length would be 10 to 11 cm. This will place the gestational age at 16 to 16 1/2 weeks.

Barbaralee's family sued both Zavalos and the clinic for $1 million. In particular, Barbaralee's family attorney brought up the following issues:

  • "Patients who receive abortions should be observed at the clinic 'for a period of time sufficient to ensure that no immediate post-operative complications are present'."
  • "Patients in whom any adverse condition exists or in whom a complication is known should be transferred to a hospital"
  • "Clinics should have a 'written agreement' with an approved hospital to provide 'prompt transfer' of persons requiring in-patient care."
Illinois law required that outpatient surgery centers have a written agreement with a hospital not more than 15 minutes away for transfer of patients needing care. Hope Clinic did not have any such written agreement.

A doctor reviewing the case for Barbaralee's family noted that it would be evident from the fetal remains whether Barbaralee's unborn baby was over 16 weeks or merely 11 weeks. For reference, an 11-week fetus is about 1.6 inches long and weighs about 1.6 ounces, while a 16-week fetus is about 7.3 inches long and weighs a little over 5 ounces. A foot measurement, which is commonly used in abortion facilities to verify fetal age, would be 7-8 mm in an 11-week fetus and 20 mm in a 16-week fetus.

The defendants tried to get the case thrown out on a technicality, because the family's attorney had sued both the facility and the doctor under the same count. In response, the attorney severed the two cases and asked for $1.4 million from each rather than $1 million for the two defendants.

Hope Clinic for Women was not only permitted to remain in operation, it was allowed to remain a member in good standing of the National Abortion Federation.


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