In April 2016, multiple Facebook pages shared links to articles with titles claiming an “abortionist strangled [a] baby” following a botched abortion. The tendency of social media users to share items without clicking through to the content led many to believe that the link described a current event.
Most of these links led to a 9 May 2013 LifeSiteNews article, which was three years old at the time of its April 2016 Facebook circulation. Nearly all versions included the same exact photograph of what appeared to be a full-term infant crying, an image dated to 2014, was in no way related to abortion, and depicted a healthy baby boy, Karson Hanson. How Karson’s photograph came to be linked to the story wasn’t clear.
Even the 2013 article didn’t describe anything recent. The events described were from 2 March 1977, and involved a saline abortion that reportedly resulted in a live birth:
In 1977, abortion was legal throughout the country during all nine months of pregnancy. When an obstetrician/gynecologist told teenager “Mary W” that she was 28 weeks pregnant, he suggested that she give the baby up for adoption, as few doctors in the area were willing to perform abortions that late.
But Mary was determined, and she managed to find an abortionist – Dr. William Baxter Waddill. On March 2, 1977, Mary arrived at Westminster Community Hospital for a saline abortion.
Saline abortions are seldom performed today because of the danger to the mother and the possibility of live births, but in the 1970s and ’80s, they were very common. They were generally used to end pregnancies towards the end of the second trimester … The abortionist injected the saline and then left, leaving the nurses to tend to Mary. It was common for abortion doctors to inject their patients with saline and then leave, forcing the nurses to bear the emotional brunt of the abortion procedures and to dispose of the dead babies. In this case, however, Mary gave birth to a living 2-lb., 8-oz. baby girl.
The story goes on to describe the doctor arriving at the clinic, angrily chasing chased all the nurses out of the room and making a call to another physician, Dr. Ronald Cornelson. (At that time, two doctors needed to be present to pronounce a premature baby dead.)
The article presented many of its claims in a first-person, eyewitness style of reporting. Towards the end, it cited a separate anti-abortion blog as a source for its claims, saying the baby could have lived:
Could the little girl have survived if she had not been strangled? In the 1970s, neonatology was not as advanced as it is today. In the 1990s, over 90% of babies born at 27 weeks were able to survive. The number is even higher now.
Statistics from the 1970s are harder to come by, but an article in The Sydney Morning Herald claims that these babies had about a 71% survival rate if given medical attention promptly. So it is possible – if not very likely – that the baby would have survived if she had continued to be treated in the ICU.
The November 2006 blog post from which the article was sourced made no effort to clarify how information about the failed 1977 saline abortion was obtained (such as medical records, court documents, or individual accounts). Most mentions of the case were versions of the same original blog post written in 2006, citations for which were either too vague to lend clarification or long-since dead. Very little accessible material remained, including details of what was an eventual criminal case against Waddill; a summary was published by the Orange County Register in 2009:
Dr. William Waddill, a prominent Huntington Harbour obstetrician, was charged with strangling a fetus delivered after an unsuccessful abortion on an 18-year-old high school student.
The frightened young woman had to push her way through throngs of protesters and glaring camera lights outside the Santa Ana courthouse to testify against Waddill in two headline-making trials that focused public attention on the abortion debate raging across the country.
Twice, Waddill was tried on murder charges. Twice, the jury deadlocked. Orange County Judge Byron K. McMillan ultimately dismissed the case against Waddill in 1979 after the second hung jury.
The trials pertained to complications that arose during a long-retired procedure known as a saline abortion. It bears mentioning that none of the details of the 1977 incident were relevant to the discussion of abortion in 2016, as saline abortions fell out of favor in the 1970s (and along with them, complications that could lead to a surviving fetus). Without this relevant context, readers were left with an impression that such an outcome was likely (or even possible) in 2016, which was misleading at best.
A 6 April 1979 editorial in the Chicago Tribune weighed in on the merits of the case, and several local newspapers covered two trials associated with the failed abortion. The most detailed accounting came from a February 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times. That article (itself published more than a decade after the trial) indicated that crucial details such as the fetus’ developmental stage and ultimate cause of death were never determined:
Waddill, a successful Huntington Harbour obstetrician, was accused of strangling to death a baby who had survived the abortion he had performed on the 18-year-old.
He eventually was tried twice for murder, but never convicted in connection with the baby’s death … Neither jury in the Waddill trials could reach a unanimous decision and the charge was finally dismissed after the second jury in 1979 voted 11 to 1 for acquittal … Aside from the allegations that Waddill strangled the infant, the prosecution contended that the doctor failed to try to save the baby and could be convicted for that alone.
The Waddill case began the morning of March 2, 1977, when Mary Weaver, an unwed Huntington Beach teen-ager and daughter of an area high school principal, underwent a saline abortion at Westminster Community Hospital, which no longer exists … About 10 that night, the baby–estimated to be anywhere from 20 weeks to 30 weeks old–was born alive.
When Waddill arrived at the hospital and viewed the baby in the nursery, he would later testify, “The abortus looked absolutely lifeless . . . for all intents and purposes, dead.”
Later, he said he did see the infant make some gasps. But he insisted they were associated with the baby going through the final throes of death. He still believed the infant had no hope for survival after being bathed for hours in the deadly saline solution.
Waddill then ordered everyone out of the nursery, except for pediatrician Ronald J. Cornelson.
What happened next to the baby has ultimately come down to Cornelson’s word against Waddill’s.
According to Waddill, the baby died from the massive exposure to the saline solution. But a few days after the incident, Cornelson told police that he had watched in horror as Waddill tried three times to strangle the infant before it finally succeeded on the fourth attempt.
Experts differed on whether the baby was even alive outside the womb and its age. Even the prosecution’s experts acknowledged that the baby could not have lived for any real length of time.
Reports from February 1978 attributed the claims of strangulation and a version of the quoted remarks to the attending pediatrician’s testimony, and the trial by all accounts was a function of lack of medical protocol:
The later popular focus of the incident (Waddill’s purported strangulation of the fetus) came not from forensic evidence, but testimony:
The decades-old incident was ideal for purposes of editorializing precisely because so much time had passed, leaving details obfuscated and difficult to check. Social media users exposed to the item in 2016 could easily be led to believe that the story was recent; not only was the item circulating at that time published in 2013, it was sourced from a 2006 blog post. Even then, nearly 30 years had passed between the failed saline abortion and the story’s emergence on anti-abortion blogs.
It’s true that an obstetrician-gynecologist named Dr. William Waddill performed an unsuccessful saline abortion on a young patient on 2 March 1977. It’s also true that the abortion may have failed due to a later gestational age than anticipated. A witness and fellow doctor testified that Waddill strangled the dying fetus; Waddill maintained he was checking for a pulse. Even those condemning the doctor conceded that there was virtually no chance the fetus would have survived had care been rendered. The doctor was twice tried over the infant’s death, but was found not guilty, and later resumed his practice. However, the circumstances under which that abortion went terribly wrong have long since been made exceedingly unlikely due to advances in medicine. Saline abortions were almost never used after the 1970s (due to risk to the mother), and today, updated diagnostic devices ensure that both patients and doctors receive a much better idea of how advanced a pregnancy is before proceeding with its termination.
Beck, Joan. “That Thin Line Between An Abortion And A Murder.”
Chicago Tribune. 6 April 1979 (page 2).
Bunting, Kenneth F. “Dr. William Waddill: Starting Over Again.”
The Spokesman-Review. 11 August 1979 (page 11).
Welborn, Larry. “‘Freeway Killer’? Or Killers?.”
The Orange County Register. 20 November 2009.
Wright, Jeanne. “Matters of Life and Death : New Book Puts Back In The Spotlight 16-Year-Old Case Of An Orange County Doctor Tried Twice But Never Convicted Of Strangling To Death A Baby After An Abortion He Had Performed.”
Los Angeles Times. 2 February 1993.
Ocala Star-Banner. “Dr. Waddill Again On Trial For Abortion.”
8 April 1979 (page 7).
Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Doctor Describes Strangling Of Baby.”
16 March 1979 (page 53).
Kingman Daily Herald. “Waddill Charges Dismissed.”
12 June 1979 (page 12).
The Milwaukee Journal. “Fear Led To Death Of Baby, Jury Told.”
8 February 1978 (page 20).
Lodi News-Sentinel. “Doctor Saw Physician Choke Baby.”
8 February 1978 (page 3).
The Michigan Daily. “Charges Dropped In Waddill Abortion Case.”
12 June 1979 (page 6).
Star-News. “Waddill Abortion Trial To Go To Jury.”
29 May 1979 (page 3-A).
The Prescott-Courier. “Abortion-Linked Trial Nears End Under Groups’ Watch.”
2 April 1978 (page 2-A).