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Illegal procedures

Abortionist Bertha Bugarin goes to jail, but exploitation of Hispanic women goes on


Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

Illegal procedures
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SAN DIEGO-On the 2nd floor of the San Diego County Courthouse in the sterile tile hallway outside Department 18, a motley crew of spectators gathered on April 24 to witness the felony sentencing of a criminal abortionist. After many delays, Bertha Bugarin, already serving time in Los Angeles for 18 felony counts of performing abortions without a medical license, would finally face the music for similar crimes farther south.

For Luis Mendoza, it was a long time coming. After his 4-year-old adopted son Martín died in 2004 of a rare childhood cancer, Mendoza, a high-school math teacher, wanted to honor his memory with a celebration of life.

As it happened, people who had been praying during the boy's illness also planned to pray on Sept. 24, 2004, what would've been Martín's fifth birthday, in front of Clinica Medica Para La Mujer De Hoy, Bertha Bugarin's San Diego-area abortion clinic. A friend invited Mendoza, a Roman Catholic, to join them and tell women entering the clinic about the blessings of adoption and the precious nature of life.

Mendoza knew Bugarin operated a Southern California abortion chain that at its zenith included 11 clinics. He also knew she routinely employed doctors who had injured numerous patients. Beginning on his lost son's birthday and for the next four years, Mendoza prayed and counseled outside Clinica Medica once a week. He also prayed privately for Bugarin. At one point, Mendoza even had lunch with her and gently talked with her about changing careers.

"She said she wanted to stop [doing abortions]," Mendoza said. "She wanted to turn the clinic into a weight loss clinic."

But she never did. Meanwhile, pro-life groups such as Operation Rescue continued rattling official cages as they had for years, alerting authorities that Bugarin's clinics were endangering women. Finally, in 2008, district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Diego indicted Bugarin on charges of performing abortions without a medical license. After a December 2008 trial, a Los Angeles judge sentenced Bugarin, then 48, to three years in state prison.

On April 24, San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles R. Gill would have his turn.

The sentencing hearing was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. I met Mendoza, 50, beforehand in the corridor outside the courtroom. A solid-looking citizen with neatly clipped salt-and-pepper hair, he'd worn a sport coat and red tie for the occasion.

In the corridor, a hard bench ran along the wall under thick correctional-facility windows that muted the lemon sunlight outside into a more appropriate institutional gray. Sitting on the bench were a 50ish-year-old woman, her long hair dyed too blond, and to her left, a bald and bespectacled man well into his 80s.

Just then, a woman in a gray pantsuit walked up the hallway toward the courtroom door. A glance at her badge told me she was Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvis. The woman on the bench stopped her with a question: "Is the sentencing still on for today?"

"Yes," Darvis replied.

"Good," the blond woman said grimly. "It's about time."

Bertha Bugarin's entire abortion business targeted Spanish-speaking women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies on the cheap. Her chain of seedy clinics is emblematic of what pro-lifers say is the exploitation by abortionists of low-income Hispanics.

The Guttmacher Institute, formerly the research arm of Planned Parenthood, reports that in 2004 there were 10.5 abortions per 1,000 non-Hispanic white women ages 15 to 44, compared with 28 per 1,000 Hispanic women in the same age group.

According to the Virginia-based pregnancy resource center network CareNet, abortion businesses in minority-dominated communities outnumber pregnancy centers by a ratio of at least 5 to 1. In Hispanic communities, the abortionists are not passive: In Florida, for example, the Spanish-language advertising circular El Clarin regularly carries multiple ads for abortion services. In a recent online edition, two of the first six classified ads touted "abortos sin dolor" (abortions without pain). The second also promised "abortos seguros . . . completamente dormida" (safe abortions with full sedation) up to 22 weeks.

"El Clarin is distributed all over the Hispanic neighborhoods," said Raimundo Rojas, director of Hispanic outreach for the National Right to Life Committee. "They hand it out at all the bodegas, where it is traditionally the women who do the shopping. They put it in their grocery bags."

Over the past decade, Planned Parenthood has ramped up its marketing to Hispanics, according to Jim Sedlak, vice president of American Life League (ALL). "Their primary focus used to be the African-American community, but about 10 years ago they began writing in their publications about what they call 'outreach to the Hispanic community.' We call it 'targeting.'"

A Google search turns up regional activities in which Planned Parenthood has targeted Hispanics. In 2006, for example, the group's central Ohio branch sponsored a booth at a popular Latin American festival in Columbus and handed out more than 5,000 Spanish-language brochures.

Sedlak said Planned Parenthood is particularly intent on reaching girls and younger women of Hispanic descent. The underlying pitch can be summed up this way, he said: "Your parents' moral views of abortion are for the old country, but you're in America now."

Indeed, pro-abortion groups are chipping away at Hispanics' traditional faith-based resistance. For example, Catholics for a Free Choice publishes Hispanic-aimed materials that Rojas calls "propaganda, at best." Materials include a "prayer card" with Our Lady of Guadalupe-the Virgin Mary-on the front. On the back, a prayer asks Mary to allow for free and legal abortions.

In 2004, Planned Parenthood added a spiritual element to its Hispanic outreach, naming activist Methodist minister Ignacio Castuera as its first-ever national chaplain. The selection of Castuera was strategic: A member of Planned Parenthood's clergy advisor board since its 1994 inception, Castuera was then senior pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in the storied Watts section of Los Angeles and a well-known "community organizer."

In Planned Parenthood's spring 2005 newsletter, Castuera wrote that his job was to be "a living reminder of the close relationship between progressive religious forces and the struggle for sexual and reproductive freedom for women." Aurora Tinajero, director of the Spanish ministry of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas, said Castuero's job was to convince Hispanic women that "they could choose to abort and still be in good standing with God."

At 1:20 p.m. on April 24, the door to Judge Gill's courtroom was still closed. Having heard the blond woman on the corridor bench express enthusiasm for Bugarin's legal comeuppance, I walked over to ask her why.

"Bertha Bugarin is bad to the bone," she declared, peering up at me through thin designer glasses. "She didn't pay her suppliers. She didn't pay the doctors at her clinics. That's probably when she started doing the abortions herself."

"How are you connected to this case?" I said.

The woman hesitated, glancing at the press pass hanging from a lanyard around my neck. Then she raised her chin and looked me in the eye. "I used to drive one of the doctors to the clinic."

"Which doctor? Bruce Stier?" I said, naming an abortionist who killed a woman in Riverside, Calif., in 1996.

The woman's eyes flickered sideways toward the elderly man who was still seated next to her. "I'd rather not say."

Just then, the man piped up with his own analysis of Bugarin's business practices: "It was greed," he said. "My impression was that she wasn't a straight shooter. She had a lot of Hispanics working at the clinic and didn't pay them regularly. They were probably illegals."

"How are you connected to this case?" I asked.

The man's gaze was defiant, unflinching. "I'm a doctor. I did most of the work at Bugarin's clinic."

The doctor declined to state his name. But at that moment, a smiling, short-haired woman walked up and sat down next to him. Eying my notepad, pen, and press pass, she linked arms with the man and nudged him playfully. "You're not going to let your name get in the papers are you, Phillip?"

Over the years, Bertha Bugarin's Los Angeles clinics had at least 18 lawsuits filed against them, including a case involving Phillip Rand. Bugarin employed the 84-year-old abortionist at the San Diego-area clinic where Luis Mendoza counseled. According to court records, Rand in 2004 performed, without anesthesia or painkillers, a vacuum aspirator abortion on "Angela P.," a woman 20 weeks pregnant. In an aspirator abortion, the doctor inserts a tube called a cannula into the woman's cervix, uses a sharp edge to cut the baby into parts, then suctions them through the tube.

According to the National Abortion Federation, an aspiration abortion should not be attempted after 14 weeks gestation. At 20 weeks, a fetus is about 10 inches long, weighs about 10 ounces, and has hair and a fully formed baby face visible on ultrasound. Size-wise, trying to suction a 20-week baby through a cannula would be like trying to suction a newborn kitten through a drinking straw.

By the time paramedics arrived, Angela P. was lying in a crimson puddle, pulse racing and blood pressure dropping. The incident, so heinous that the patient was profiled on NBC's Dateline, capped a string of Rand's botched abortions. He surrendered his medical license in 2005.

Rand was just one among several troubled abortionists Bugarin employed, including Nicholas Braemer, who in 1987 removed only one of a baby's arms from its mother's womb before declaring the abortion complete and sending the 27-year-old patient home. The next day, the mother gave birth to a one-armed, stillborn child.

Bugarin also appointed as Clinica Medica's medical director Dr. Laurence Reich, a convicted sex offender. Both men voluntarily surrendered their medical licenses but continued performing abortions at Bugarin's clinics. Authorities arrested Reich at Bugarin's Panorama City clinic in 2008.

When she ran out of willing doctors, Bugarin, who had no medical training, began scheduling and performing first- and second-trimester abortions herself.

During her April 24 sentencing hearing, Bugarin, a Hispanic woman wearing a blue prison jumpsuit and chains around her waist, sat at the defense table, head down, long dark hair shielding her face like a curtain. I sat in the gallery with Luis Mendoza, the man who had prayed outside Bugarin's clinic and tried to persuade her to change careers.

We listened as prosecutor Gina Darvis noted for Judge Gill the calculated, profit-oriented nature of Bugarin's acts and the extreme danger in which she had placed patients. In turn, defense attorney Kay Sunday portrayed her client as a hardworking entrepreneur who had only gotten a little overzealous in her attempt to make her business succeed.

Judge Charles Gill didn't buy it. Sunday had argued for a sentence of two years, a term that would essentially absolve Bugarin of consequences for her San Diego crimes since the longer Los Angeles sentence would supersede it. Instead, Gill sentenced Bugarin to six years and eight months, a stint that replaces the L.A. term and doubles the amount of time she'll spend behind bars. When Gill pronounced the sentence, Sunday put her arm around her client. Bugarin's shoulders heaved with silent sobs.

Afterward, in the corridor, I asked Mendoza how he felt about the outcome. Given the number of women injured and babies killed in Bugarin's clinics, "it was a bit disappointing," he said. "But I want to focus on the positive. She is serving significant time and maybe that is what will change her heart."


Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

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