More than 300 health professionals gathered here yesterday for a memorial service for a Mexican-American woman thought to be the first to die from an illegal abortion because she could not obtain Medicaid funds for a legal abortion.
"We join you here today to mourn the death of . . . a sister we view as needless and unconscionable when the only thing that stood between here and life was a Medicaid card that wouldn't buy her an abortion she chose to have." Elisa Sanchex, president of the Mexican-American Women's National Association told the mourners.
The service was held at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, chosen for the occasion because it is located across Connecticut Avenue NW From the Washington Hilton, where the American Public Health Assoication is holding its annual convention.
"What has happened cannot be denied because she was 'one of them!" Dr. George Pickett, president of the APHA, and director of the West Virginia Department of Health, tole the mourners. "She was one of us. We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things we ought to have done." he said, referring to the congressional cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortions.
As the service was being held for the woman who died in a Texas hospital after returning from a bordee clinic in Mexico where she received her $40 abortion, the National Right to Life Committee, one of the major antiabortion groups, was hand-delivering a news release naming three women said to have "recently died from botched legal abortions."
Committee spokeswoman Judie Brown said one died in June of this year, another in 1975, and a third, Rita McDowell, of the District of Columbia, died in September, 1976.
Rita McDowell actually died in March, 1975. In September, 1976, her family won a malpractice suit against Dr. Robert Sherman, who admitted he was responsible for McDowell's death, having only partially aborted her. Sherman's license to practice medicine in the District of Columbia recently was revoked, and sources have said U.S. prosecutors are considering criminal prosecution in the case.
Brown said the service for the Mexican-American woman was "the reason for this press release. The other reason is it's time the American public realize that legal abortion also results in the death of women."
In a study released Tuesday the federal Center for Diesease Control said 14 women have died this year following abortions. The study did not differentiate among those that were legal abortions and those that were not.
According to the CDC, 128 women died following abortions in 1970, when few states allowed abortions of any kind. In 1974, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, 52 women died, 46 of whom had submitted to legal abortions.
Yesterday House and Senate conferences once again attempted vainly to reach a compromise on the circumstances under which Medicaid funds may be used to pay for abortions.
Late yesterday, the Senate Appriations Committee prepared a compromise proposal, which must be approved by the full Senate before being sent to the House. The compromise would allow Medicaid payment for abortions where "severe physical health damage to the mother" would result if the pregnancy continued.
House members have been holding out for legislation that would allow the use of U.S. funds to pay for abortions only when the mother would die without the procedure.
Dr. C.K. landrum, one of the physicians to treat the Mexican-American woman who died Oct. 2 in a McAllen, Tex., hospital, said he and his associates have treated four women in the past six weeks who have become sick following illegal Mexican abortions.
"Up until the flurry of four we had not seen any in the past year," said Landrum. "We have not taken care of a single incidence of spetic abortion (illness caused by an abortion) in my group of three physicians and now we've had four in six weeks. I can't help but think we're going to see more."
All four incidents have occured since U.S. funds were cut off Aug. 4, he said.