Dr. Chris Simopoulos strides down the hall of his Falls Church clinic, the master showing off his domain. Here is an examination room, there a tiny laboratory. And through a door on the right, a green-tiled operating room, maybe 12 feet square, equipped with a leather padded table with stirrups.
For the time being, Simopoulos, an obstetrician, gynecologist and stubborn 43-year-old refugee from a mountain village in Greece, is barred from putting the table to use for its most controversial purpose: abortion.
"My wings have been clipped," says the trim, balding doctor, one of the few physicians in the nation jailed in an abortion case since the procedure was legalized in 1973.
It has been 2 1/2 years since the Saturday morning when Simopoulos, working in the same green-tiled room, initiated the abortion that would catapult him into the headlines, leave him with a criminal record, threaten him with the loss of his medical license, engage him in a costly legal fight and, most recently, land him before the Supreme Court.
Convicted of performing a second-trimester abortion in his clinic instead of a hospital, as Virginia law requires, Simopoulos has challenged the state statute as unconstitutionally strict. The high court agreed last month to review the conviction, a decision with potentially major implications for abortion laws nationwide.
The case is expected to test the boundaries of the court's 1973 opinion, which allows state regulation of second-trimester abortions to the extent it "reasonably relates to the preservation and protection of maternal health." Simopoulos and other abortion supporters contend Virginia's hospitalization rule is unnecessary. It also may limit women's access to abortions, they say, since Virginia law does not mandate that hospitals in the state must allow the procedure.
"A decision against Dr. Simopoulos would legitimize the attempts of some states to put roadblocks in the way of abortion," says an official of the Washington-based National Abortion Rights Action League.
Antiabortion groups, while opposed to any abortion procedure, support the April 1981 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that upheld the doctor's conviction. "The case highlights the humanity of innocent, preborn children. . . . . It shows an abortion kills a human being," says Nellie Gray, president of March for Life, an antiabortion lobbying group in Washington. "The issue is: Do you kill babies in hospitals? You do not kill babies."
The Supreme Court hearing will be a finale to a case that began when one of the doctor's patient, an unwed 17-year-old Woodbridge girl who was 5 1/2 months pregnant, aborted a male fetus in a Springfield motel room. The girl, injected with a saline solution two days earlier by the doctor, left the fetus in a trash can.
Fairfax County police tracked down the girl, who led them to Simopoulos. On a weekday morning in late November 1979, with several women patients looking on, police sealed off the two-story, red-brick American Women's Clinic on Broad Street and led Simopoulos away in handcuffs.
While the case and its details have been a professional nightmare for Simopoulos, he insists it was not a personal disaster. "I never lost a night's sleep, I never had any headaches, I never took an aspirin in my life," he says. "I've never been sick. I'm a peasant, in a sense. A strong peasant's constitution. Although some people accuse me of giving headaches to other people, I don't give them to myself, you know."
Not that he is so stoical he never lashes out in anger: anger at trial testimony he describes as "garbage"; anger at Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., whom Simopoulos accuses of "prosecutorial zealotry" and attempting to drive him out of business; and anger at the judge who convicted him, Circuit Court Judge F. Bruce Bach, a former Horan deputy and former law associate of Horan's brother.
"It was a big case. A homicide case, you know?" says Simopoulos, mocking the stance of many abortion opponents. "I was surprised at the ferocity of the accusation." He says he believes Horan, a Roman Catholic, handled the case because of his religious beliefs.
"Untrue," says Horan. "If I had followed my religious beliefs, I probably would have prosecuted him for murder." Horan dismisses the criticism of Bach as a "cheap shot . . . . My office wins cases in front of him and loses cases in front of him. He calls 'em the way he sees 'em. That's been his style."
He prosecuted Simopoulos, Horan says, because, "I considered it a major case. A bad case. If professional people don't obey the law, you can't expect others to. This young woman was given very superficial information about what she was about to undergo. All of a sudden she was confronted with a fully formed baby. It was a heck of a blow."
In their court battles, lawyers for Simopoulos have argued that abortion occurs when the fetus is expelled, not when a saline injection is administered. They also contend prosecutors failed to show at the trial that Simopoulos caused the abortion. The patient, they say, was out of Simopoulos' care for 48 hours before the abortion was complete.
More important is the constitutional question of whether Virginia's law requiring mandatory hospitalization for second-trimester abortions violates the rights of privacy and due process.
A related issue, the doctor argues, is parental consent, a decision left up to local hospitals in Virginia. Testimony at the 1980 Simopoulos trial indicated that of 17 hospitals in Northern Virginia, only two performed abortions and both required parental consent for minors.
"It was a Catch-22 proposition," says Simopoulos, who contends the girl was terrified that her parents would discover she was pregnant. "I had a desperate patient."
Horan disagrees. "There were places as close to her home i.e., the District of Columbia, where parental consent is not required as where she finally went," he says. "The constitutional question is not that grievous."
According to Simopoulos, sitting in his spartan office with a photograph of his four sons on prominent display, the years of legal buffeting have left him reflective, even philosophical.
He says his grandfather, a Greek Orthodox priest, once told him: " 'A man has two cows, one strong, one weak. On which would he place the yoke? The strong one. God is testing you to bring out the best in you.' I wish God would stop testing me and test somebody else for a change. That's how I feel."
After his conviction, Simopoulos' license was revoked by state medical authorities. It was restored briefly during an appeal of the revocation, then revoked again, then restored again on condition he perform no abortions for two years.
He also spent 20 days in the Fairfax County Detention Center, the jail term imposed on him by Judge Bach on an otherwise suspended two-year sentence. "I made some friends with the guards," says Simopoulos, who spent the time reading and studying. "I don't recommend it jail . I'd rather be in Philadelphia, as they say."
While his license was revoked, Simopoulos returned for a time to the village in the Macedonian mountains where he was born. "I had to gain some perspective," he says. He thought about resettling in Europe. "But I saw the same poverty and the same misery and the mountains there. I decided I had to fight . . . . I'm not a quitter. Nobody in my family's a quitter, on through the war and so forth. You learn to build a lot of endurance. The civil war in Greece, we lost everything there. So what? So I said, even if I lose everything I still will be where I came from. Nothing, from nothing."
So far the court battle has cost him more than $100,000, he says. "But I must tell you I believe in the system. After all, I'm an American by choice, not chance. It's slow moving, but it's moving. It's expensive, but it's working."