Accused abortion doctor has notorious reputation
BALTIMORE—In early August, three women, each of them more than four months pregnant, sought abortions from Dr. Steven Brigham at his clinic in New Jersey. Instead of turning them down, authorities said Brigham used a novel scheme to take advantage of the disparities in state abortion laws.
He started the late-term abortions in New Jersey, where he wasn't permitted to perform them, and finished them a day later in Maryland, where the law is more permissive, authorities said.
One of the abortions, however, didn't go as planned, and Maryland officials ordered Brigham, 54, to stop practicing medicine in the state. Police raided his offices and yanked two of his colleagues' licenses in Maryland, and New Jersey authorities are also seeking to take his license away.
Richard W. Westling, one of Brigham's attorneys, said abortion doctors are frequently scrutinized and his client stands behind his work.
"The matters currently being investigated involve procedures that Dr. Brigham believes were legal," Westling said. "We are cooperating with the various investigations and believe that a full airing of all of the facts and legal issues is necessary before any conclusions are reached."
Brigham's license has been suspended or revoked in several states, but he has managed to continue operating more than a dozen clinics. The new allegations stunned even those familiar with his notorious reputation, who said they had never heard of a doctor initiating an abortion in one state, then finishing it in another.
"His record is the most egregious one I know of in the field," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers, which has been warning authorities about Brigham's practices since the mid-1990s.
"He operates in his own economic interests and not in the best interests of the women who seek his care," Saporta said.
New Jersey permits all licensed doctors to perform abortions for fetuses 14 weeks and younger, but Brigham and his clinics lacked the certification needed to perform a different procedure that's used for later-term fetuses.
Maryland law is more flexible. Licensed physicians can perform abortions at any time before the fetus is deemed capable of surviving outside the womb, and abortions of viable fetuses are permitted to protect the life or health of the mother or if the fetus has serious genetic abnormalities. Doctors generally consider fetuses to be viable starting around 23 weeks.
New Jersey authorities claim that Brigham was violating state law simply by beginning second-trimester abortions in that state. Documents show Brigham began dilating the cervix in New Jersey, then removed the fetus next day in Maryland.
While it's common for late-term abortions to be performed over two days, documents show that Brigham didn't even tell his patients they'd be going to his clinic in Elkton, Md., about 60 miles away. He simply led a caravan of vehicles, instructing patients or their relatives to follow him, documents show.
Brigham graduated from Columbia University medical school in 1986. He's the owner of American Women's Services Inc. -- which is headquartered in Voorhees, N.J., about 10 miles east of Philadelphia -- and has 16 abortion clinics in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The abortion business can be lucrative for the relatively few doctors who perform the procedure regularly, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute. The median price in 2005 for an abortion at 10 weeks was $430, and at 20 weeks, when the procedure is more complicated, it was $1,260, the Guttmacher Institute found.
Brigham charged $2,045 to the New Jersey patient whose abortion was botched, documents show.
Authorities said Brigham's scheme could have continued if they hadn't discovered the botched procedure at his Elkton clinic. An 18-year-old woman who was 21 weeks pregnant had her uterus ruptured and her bowel injured, and rather than call 911, Brigham and his colleague Dr. Nicola Riley drove the woman to a nearby hospital, where both were uncooperative and Brigham refused to give his name, authorities said.
Documents filed in Maryland suggest that Brigham and his staff frequently performed late-term abortions. A search of the Elkton clinic revealed a freezer with 35 late-term fetuses inside, including one believed to have been aborted at 36 weeks. Police who searched Brigham's offices in Voorhees found only two medical records related to those fetuses, documents show.
Brigham hasn't been cited for any wrongdoing related to the storage of the fetuses.
A medical student who observed Brigham's work at the Elkton clinic told investigators that she saw him perform about 50 abortions there between January and August, and that the majority involved women in their second or third trimesters.
Allegations against Brigham first surfaced in 1992 in Pennsylvania, where he agreed to give up his license amid an investigation of his practice, according to published reports.
In 1993, he botched two late-term abortions in New York, and his license was revoked for gross negligence. According to public records, a 20-year-old patient had to undergo an emergency hysterectomy, and the other patient had her colon removed.
His Florida license was revoked in 1996 after he secretly took over for a colleague who was killed by an anti-abortion activist.
And in July, the Pennsylvania Department of Health ordered him to close his four clinics in the state, saying he employed unlicensed caregivers.
He's also had tax problems. In 1998, he was sentenced to four months in jail for failing to file corporate income tax returns and bilking insurance companies in New York.
In April, the IRS placed more than $234,000 in liens against him for failing to pay payroll taxes. He's also subject to tens of thousands of dollars in state tax liens.
Riley, meanwhile, had only been working with Brigham for less than a month at the time of the botched abortion. She was hired in July, she told investigators, and she flew from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Maryland every other week to perform abortions.
"There are two sides to the story," said Christopher Brown, Riley's attorney, but he declined to elaborate on the allegations. Riley returned a telephone call from The Associated Press Tuesday night and said she would not be commenting.
Kirt Linneman, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-abortion group, said that while he believes all abortions are immoral, women who seek them should receive adequate care.
"We are appalled at the lack of regulation and oversight of the abortion industry," Linneman said. "The abortion industry operates in the dark."
Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.