Tuesday, June 18, 2024

June 18, 1973: Abortion Rights Folks Side With Deadly Doc

 Dr. Hugh Benjamin Munson had been practicing criminal abortion in Rapid City, SD as early as 1967. In 1969, he was convicted of performing an abortion on a 19-year-old patient. Munson, who went by his middle name, won an appeal in circuit court. When the state appealed, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Munson was in the process of appealing this decision when Roe vs. Wade was handed down, making the case moot. Munson was free to practice abortion at-will.

Into this situation walked 28-year-old Linda Padfield.

Linda's Last Days

Linda Padfield

On June 14, 1973, Linda traveled about five hours to Munson's Rapid City clinic from her home in Groton, SD with her three small children and a friend. 

The following day Linda went to Munson's clinic, where  the 57-year-old doctor performed an abortion. Linda, her friend, and her children went to spend the night at a nearby hotel.

According to Linda's friend, Munson was supposed to come to the hotel the next day to check on Linda, but he never arrived. The two women were unable to reach him by phone, so they took Linda's children to do some sightseeing and then headed home to Groton. 

When arrived on the 17th, Linda was already sick with nausea and high fever. She told her mother about the abortion, and her mother took her to St. Luke's Hospital in Aberdeen for emergency surgery, but the infection had progressed too far and Linda died on June 18.

Three Years Later

Not a word about Linda's death appears in the media until three years later, almost to the day. Munson was arrested and charged with manslaughter on June 17, 1976.

Legal Wrangling and Taking Sides

Dr. H. Benjamin Munson
Munson asked that the manslaughter charge against him be dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. The judge ruled that the clock began running not on the day Linda had been injured but on the day she had died. Thus, he ruled, charges were filed one day short of the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Munson also alleged that the decision to prosecute was made in bad faith because Attorney General William Janklow was opposed to abortion. Munson's attorney noted that since his client performed almost all the abortions in South Dakota, taking him out of circulation would put a virtual halt to abortions in the state. 

Abortion-rights activists with the National Abortion Rights Action League started a defense fund for Munson, raising over $40,000 (over $200,000 in 2022 dollars). The National Organization for Women took out a large newspaper ad offering public support for Munson. Given the choice between a dead patient and the person who had caused her death, they chose the latter.

The Trial Begins

Jury selection was held behind closed doors. Circuit Court Judge Merton Tice Jr. said that he wanted to have prospective jurors "free from influence outside of those which are proper." The Rapid City Journal sought to have the closure lifted so that they could cover jury selection. They lost their bid to open the procedure.

The jury was sequestered during the trial. Judge Tice asked the attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense not to talk to the press. 

Jurors were taken for a tour of Munson's clinic on the first post-selection day of the trial. 

Testimony From Doctors

One of the doctors who had treated Linda at the hospital, Dr. James Hovland, said that Linda had been conscious when she first arrived but that she deteriorated rapidly. She seemed to be going into kidney failure, and didn't even bleed from the incision made for exploratory surgery. When asked if an immediate hysterectomy would have saved her, Hovland expressed his doubts, given how gravely ill Linda was from the results of the infection raging through her entire body.

Dr. A. C. Vogele, another doctor who treated Linda, agreed with Dr. Hovland that Linda had been conscious and alert but was showing low blood pressure, abdominal pain, bleeding, and signs of shock. The exploratory surgery found no perforation of the uterus or bowel. The doctors halted any further surgery, Vogele said, because Linda was so sick that she'd have died during surgery. When asked if he would have performed a hysterectomy had he known how much of Linda's fetus was still inside his body, Vogele responded that he probably would have. 

The only person who knew how much of Linda's fetus was still in her body was Benjamin Munson, and he evidently had not bothered to tell anybody.

How much of Linda's unborn baby had been left in her uterus? A pathologist found the remains of a five-month fetus, missing the left leg, right arm, part of the skull, and part of the front of the torso. A five-month fetus typically weighs about 360 grams; Munson had left 240 grams behind. He had only removed about a third of Linda's baby.

The 240 grams of retained fetus were, the pathologist believed, the source of the problem. The retained fetus caused sepsis, which caused hemorrhage, which caused the adrenal failure that killed Linda.

The prosecution focused on the fact that infection will inevitably result from that much retained tissue and that there was simply no way Munson could have been unaware that he had failed to complete the abortion. The Attorney General commented, "You take a three-inch leg off something, you have to know that there's more in there than just the leg." 

Munson's Attorney's Argument

The defense argument was basically this:

  1. Lots of abortion doctors send patients home with retained tissue, figuring that the woman will just expel it later.
  2. Yes, retained tissue can cause infection, but infection is an accepted risk of abortion.
  3. The prosecution didn't prove that Munson was aware of how much of Linda's fetus had been left in her womb.
  4. The prosecution didn't prove that Munson had intended to cause Linda any harm.
  5. The only standard of care that can apply is the local standard of care. Since Munson was the only local abortion provider, whatever he did constituted the standard of care and therefore he could never violate that standard.

In short, he argued that since Munson was the only abortionist in South Dakota, whatever he did was by definition the right thing to do. Unless you could prove that he wanted Linda to die, you couldn't hold him accountable for her death.

The Verdict and Aftermath

The judge agreed with Munson's attorney and directed the jury to return a verdict of "Not guilty."

Munson called the directed verdict "like Christmas in October."

Munson later became a member of the National Abortion Federation (NAF). He evidently didn't to much to change his standards of care, because in 1985 he sent a teenage patient, Yvonne Mesteth, home with retained tissue. She, like Linda Padfield, died of infection. Again Munson was prosecuted for manslaughter, and again he beat the rap. As the only abortionist in South Dakota, he was the ultimate arbiter of what was accepted practice.

Munson in Context

Munson is the third former criminal abortionist I've learned of who had a clean record -- no patient deaths -- as a criminal abortionist, only to go on to kill two patients in his legal practice. The others are Milan Vuitch (Georgianna English and Wilma Harris) and Jesse Ketchum (Margaret Smith and Carole Schaner).

Munson died at a ripe old age in a Vermont nursing home in 2003. Had Linda not turned to Munson but instead reached out to a pregnancy resource center, she would have been 57 years old, and her baby 30 years old. 

Watch "It Was the Right Thing to Do Because He Did It" on YouTube.


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