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Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

Illegal procedures

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

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

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.

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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.'"

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