Dr. Bruce Steir’s case made headlines in the late 1990s.
Having performed an abortion in Riverside County that resulted in the patient’s death, in an extremely unusual turn — at least in part because of an active Medical Board of California that had members who were against abortion — he was charged with second-degree murder.
On the advice of his attorney and others, the doctor, now a San Francisco resident, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Despite the fact that Steir was told he wouldn’t go to jail and would be sentenced to probation and community service, he was incarcerated.
Behind bars, he had time on his hands to write his memoir, “Jailhouse Journal of an OB/GYN,” which begins graphically and powerfully, as Steir describes the procedure he performed on a 27-year-old woman who was 20 weeks pregnant Dec. 13, 1996, and who died before the day was over.
It’s a dramatic start to a highly readable, often-touching and sometimes-funny (one summer in the 1940s while working room service at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskills, N.Y., he brought milkshakes to boxing champ Rocky Marciano) account of Steir’s professional life as a student and doctor.
He was a fellow who chose obstetrics and gynecology as his specialty because he knew he wanted a career that dealt more with life than death.
The book isn’t simply about his tribulations and his controversial work. Steir, proceeding chronologically, fills the memoir with anecdotes, heartfelt and, at times, sad stories, which build into a cohesive whole that provides a real-life portrait of a doctor who, throughout a 40-year career, never let politics or religion get in the way of doing what he knew was the right thing: provide a necessary service to women at a pivotal point in their lives.
He tells many poignant stories: how in the 1940s, his teen sister became pregnant and gave up her baby for adoption; how, as a medical student, he helped save his neighbor, who was suffering from complications of an illegal abortion.
Later, while working as a doctor overseas in the Air Force, he describes how he finessed medical records of fellow officers’ wives who had abortions.
At the final stage of his career, he became a full-time abortion provider. He writes clearly about the danger and drama of daily work in a clinic — not only about the vocal and abusive anti-abortion demonstrators who try to stop his work, but also about the thanks he receives from the women he assisted, who came to him with a difficult problem he helped solve.
Among his many interesting insights is this vivid comment about his patients. He writes, “Over my many years as an obstetrician, I delivered several thousand babies. Nearly each and every delivery, with few rare exceptions, was a delightful experience, but I must confess that I hardly ever received hugs or heartfelt thanks. In contrast, during my 12 years as a full-time abortion provider, the women frequently expressed profound gratification.”
His story is instructional, personal and gratifying.
Jailhouse Journal of an OB/GYN
By Bruce Steir
AuthorHouse, 336 pages