Rita McDowell

Rita McDowellteens, 1970s, infectionSUMMARY: Rita McDowell, age 16, died March 7, 1975 after an abortion performed by Robert Sherman at Columbia Family Planning Clinic in Washington, DC.

Sixteen-year-old Rita McDowell was the daughter of Lupe McDowell, Ethel Kennedy’s part-time housekeeper.

On March 4, 1975, Robert Julius Sherman performed a safe and legal abortion on Rita, who was in the second trimester of her pregnancy. Rather than admit her to the hospital for the then-standard saline abortion, Sherman performed a vacuum aspiration abortion usually used for first trimester abortions. When Rita was discharged, her mother was informed that she would probably expel the fetus that night. As they left the office, Rita told her mother, “Oh, Mama, I feel like I had one hundred needles in me.”

Rita did not expel the fetus. Instead, she developed a fever. Her mother called Sherman’s facility on March 5 to seek care for her daughter. She said that Sherman would not speak to her, and that the receptionist told her to bring Rita in two days later.

In the early morning hours of March 7, Rita awoke screaming, then collapsed in her mother’s arms. Doctors at the hospital where Rita was taken removed the macerated fetus, but she died from massive infection just after midnight on March 8.

An investigation into Rita’s death revealed evidence that Sherman deliberately performed incomplete abortions so that he could charge more for follow-up care. Sherman was charged with murder in Rita’s death, and prosecutors presented witnesses and evidence that Sherman re-used disposable medical equipment, failed to perform tests to verify pregnancy, failed to do pathology examinations of abortion tissues, allowed a nurse’s aide to perform surgery, and falsified medical records.

Testimony during his trial indicated that Sherman would send patients home with green plastic trash bags to collect fetuses that they expelled at home after their incomplete abortions.

Three patients also testified against Sherman. One testified that when she reported feeling nauseous and faint after the abortion, Sherman told her to go outside and get some fresh air. Sherman discharged her telling her that the abortion was complete, but she’d ended up having to undergo a second procedure at a hospital. Another testified about the “small, shabby room” that Sherman did abortions in at his clinic.

In affidavits filed in the McDowell case, Sherman and his Columbia Family Planning Clinic included employees noting unsanitary conditions, including rusting instruments. A doctor who had done several abortions there said that Sherman used suction canulas that were too small and “would end the procedure after an obviously cursory attempt to empty the contents of the uterus.”

Many of Sherman’s patients were Medicaid patients, for whom Sherman received over $77,000 in payments in 1975 alone. In 55 cases, those patients had to return for additional treatment following incomplete abortions.

Sherman claimed to develop heart problems during the murder trial. He plea-bargained, getting the murder charge dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on the perjury charges. The prosecutor defended the plea bargain on the grounds that the felony convictions would block Sherman from ever practicing medicine again. Sherman served two years in a federal prison, then set up a legal abortion practice in Boston.

Sherman had shown signs that he was trouble before Rita’s death. People noted that he “had already been expelled from the local gynecological society, reprimanded and censured by the area’s medical society, and recommended for disciplinary action by the OB-GYN department of the Washington Hospital Center.”

An article in the September 11, 1976 Panama City News-Herald indicated that since 1967, Sherman had been sued for malpractice more than a dozen times. Three of those cases involved the deaths of patients. I have been unable to determine if those other deaths were abortion cases.

As you can see from the graph below, abortion deaths were falling dramatically before legalization. This steep fall had been in place for decades. To argue that legalization lowered abortion mortality simply isn’t supported by the data.

external image Abortion+Deaths+Since+1960.jpg


  1. 1900s
  2. 1910-1919
  3. 1920s
  4. 1930s
  5. 1940s
  6. 1950s
  7. 1960s
  8. 1970s
  9. 1980s
  10. 1990s
  11. 19th century
  12. 2000-2009
  13. 20s
  14. 30s
  15. 40s
  16. NAF
  17. abortifacient
  18. abortion
  19. abortion mill
  20. abortion mortality
  21. abortionists
  22. abortionists — female
  23. abortionists — male
  24. alabama
  25. anesthesia
  26. arizona
  27. black women
  28. botched abortion
  29. california
  30. chicago
  31. colorado
  32. connecticut
  33. cover-up
  34. death
  35. deaths
  36. deception
  37. delay in transport
  38. delay in treatment
  39. district of columbia
  40. dumped body
  41. ectopic
  42. embolism
  43. falsifying forms
  44. fetal indications
  45. florida
  46. former criminal abortionist
  47. george tiller
  48. georgia
  49. hemorrhage death
  50. hospitals
  51. illegal – doctor
  52. illegal – midwife
  53. illegal – nurse
  54. illegal – paramedical
  55. illegal – post roe
  56. illegal – unknown
  57. illegal – untrained
  58. illegal abortion
  59. illinois
  60. inadequate documents
  61. inadequate equipment
  62. inadequate resuscitation
  63. incomplete abortion
  64. indiana
  65. infection
  66. kansas
  67. legal abortion
  68. llinois
  69. louisiana
  70. maryland
  71. massachusetts
  72. maternal indications
  73. maternal mortality
  74. michigan
  75. mills
  76. missouri
  77. mortality
  78. national abortion federation
  79. new jersey
  80. new mexico
  81. new york
  82. north carolina
  83. ohio
  84. oklahoma
  85. pennsylvania
  86. planned parenthood
  87. pre-roe legal
  88. previous misconduct
  89. prostaglandin
  90. quackery
  91. questionable stories
  92. ru-486
  93. rupture
  94. saline
  95. secret abortion
  96. self-induced
  97. suicide
  98. teens
  99. texas
  100. wisconsin