The U.S. Attorney's Office has begun a criminal investigation of a former Washington abortionist whose medical license to practice in D.C. was revoked after he admitted his negligence caused the death of a 16-year-old patient. The Washington Post has learned.

The prosecutor's office is seeking to determine whether Dr. Robert J. Sherman's role in the death of Rita C. McDowell could be prosecuted under criminal statutes. McDowell, 16, died in March, 1975, of blood poisoning and shock four days after Sherman performed an incomplete abortion on her.

As a part of its investigation, the U.S. prosecutor's office reportedly has begun reviewing 4,000 pages of testimony before the D.C. medical licesing board that revoked Sherman's liceuse last month.

The Commission on Licensure to Practice the Healing Arts concluded, after hearing that testimony, that Sherman "placed very little value on the life of his abortion patients" and was, more interested in the fees he could extract from them.

Sherman, 64, who currently is practicing medicine in the Richmond, Va., suburb of Highland Springs, said yesterday afternoon that he knew nothing about any criminal investigation of him.

"I have no statement to make," Sherman said in a telephone interview. "I'm entirely surprised."

Sherman has asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn the revocation of his license in D.C.The revocation of the D.C. license does not automatically preclude him from practicing medicine in other states where he is licensed.

To successfully prosecute a doctor under D.C. homicide statues, the government has to prove not only that his negligence directly caused a patients death but has to satisfy several other critania.

Second-degree murder for example, requires that the government prove that a defendant killed person "with malice," a term that is described in jury instructions as "a state of mind showing a heart regardless of the life and safety of others, a mind deliberately bent on mischief, a generally depraved, wicked and malicious spirit."

Manslaghter statues requre that the government prove a defendant's conduct "was so reckless that it involved extreme danger of death or serious bodily harm and was a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a reasonable person should have observed under the circumstances."

Sherman admitted his negligence in the McDowell death in a civil suit that resulted in a jury award of $392,000 in compensatory damages to the McDowell family. Sherman agreed out of court to pay the family $525,000 to settle a further claim of punitive damages, sources said.

His license was revoked by the five-member medical licensing board after it heard 14 days of testimony by patients, employees and former employees of Sherman's now-defunct Columbia Family Planning Clinic at 1835 I St. NW.

The commission found that women were given abortions there with improperly sterilized plastic instruments that had been reused so often that "the tips of them . . . were broken off."

Sherman also allowed a barely literate assistant to perform surgery on women and directed aides to give some treatments routinely to women on Medicaid "because that is a way of raising the bill," the commission concluded.

The decision to revoke the license was based on findings that the conditions in the clinic did not adhere to prescribed medical standards of cleanliness and practice.