Dr. Chris Simopoulos, the Northern Virginia physician convicted earlier this week of performing an illegal abortion on a 17-year-old high school student, yesterday was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
If his appeals fail, Simopoulos, a Greek immigrant who has practiced in the Washington suburbs for the past 10 years, could become the first physician in the country to be jailed on an abortion charge since the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark abortion ruling. That decision limited the powers of states to restrict abortions, and led to a sharp decline in arrests for such operations.
"If I indeed violated certain laws," the 42-year-old physician told a Fairfax County judge yesterday, "I did so quite unintentionally and in an effort to help another human being."
Circuit Court Judge F. Bruce Bach, however, rejected Simopoulos's pleas to avoid a jail sentence, but agreed to let him serve the 30 days on weekends at the county jail. That was a condition of a two-year suspended sentence that Bach imposed on the doctor.
Simopoulos, who runs an abortion clinic in Falls Church and practices in Woodbrige, could have been sentenced to as much as 10 years. He also is likely, state officials said yesterday, to lose his medical license.
Fairfax Prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., who had recommended a suspended sentence, hailed the judge's action nonetheless "as a message to anybody who works in that business. The message is that you better follow the law."
In a brief statement before he was sentenced, Simopoulos, his hand shaking as he stood leaning against a courtroom table, asked the judge to spare him a prison sentence.
"As a doctor, I would like to devote my full energy . . . to the practice of medicine," said Simopoulos, noting that he is the father of four boys.
Bach told Simopoulos that it is "very difficult to believe . . . [that] a man in the abortion business doesn't know what the laws are."
In rejecting the prosecutor's recommendation that Simopoulos receive no prison term, Bach said the privileges and rewards society bestows upon physicians are so great that physicians must be held strictly accountable for their work.
Bach denied a defense request that he withhold imposing a final judgment in the case as a way to help the physician keep his medical license while his appeals are pending.
The doctor will not have to begin serving the sentence until his appeals are completed.
Simopoulos was convicted of violating a Virginia law requiring that second-trimester abortions -- those done after the 13th week of pregnancy -- be performed in a hosptial. Bach heard the case without a jury, and convicted the doctor on Wednesday.
Prosecutors said the doctor violated the state law by injecting the young girl with a salt solution at his American Women's Clinic in Falls Church last November. The girl was more than five months pregnant at the time.
She testified at the trial that Simopoulos allowed her to deliver the dead male fetus by herself at Springfield motel without warning her how traumatic the experience could be. She left the fetus in a wastebasket at the motel, where it was found later.
Simopoulos testified that he carefully explained to the girl what would happen and told her to go to Fairfax Hospital when she went into labor. He said he had assured her he would deliver the fetus there.
The defense, in strongly attacking the Virginia abortion law, argued that the hospitalization requirement unconstitutionally restricts the ability of minors to obtain abortions. Defense doctors testified that it was medically safe to inject the salt solution outside the hospital in a clinic such as the one Simpoulos has.
Virginia law requires the state Medical Boards executive secretary to lift without a hearing the license of a physician convicted of a felony, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's office said yesterday. The full board later can reinstate the license while the physician's conviction is on appeal, the spokesman added.
In the case of Dr. Murdock Head, another physician convicted on felony charges last year, the state board refused to let him keep his license during the appeal of his conviction on charges of engaging in a criminal conspiracy, the spokesman said.