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State bars abortions at 2 clinics in Orlando, 8/17/2006

By Editorial Staff
Published August 17, 2006

Dr. James Pendergraft’s license is suspended on allegations he did illegal 3rd-trimester procedures

By Robyn Shelton, Sentinel Medical Writer

The state has ordered two Orlando clinics to stop doing abortions indefinitely and suspended the medical license of their owner, Dr. James Pendergraft, on grounds that he illegally performed third-trimester abortions.

The restrictions began last week at one Orlando location, and by Wednesday, all five of Pendergraft’s offices statewide had been ordered to stop providing abortions.

In addition, Pendergraft’s medical license was suspended Wednesday in an emergency order that claims he has shown “a flagrant disregard for the laws of the state of Florida and a willingness to endanger the lives and health of pregnant patients.”

In describing one incident, state documents allege that the physician failed to get a second doctor’s opinion before proceeding with an abortion in July 2005 on a woman who was 28 weeks pregnant with a fetus that “had a swollen head, no lungs and one kidney.” The procedure was done at the Orlando Women’s Center on Lucerne Terrace.

Under state law, third-trimester abortions are legal when “the termination of pregnancy is necessary to save the life or preserve the health of the pregnant woman.” The law also requires the procedures to be done in a hospital unless two physicians “certify in writing” that an urgent operation is needed to save the pregnant woman’s life.

Pendergraft would not comment, but his spokeswoman, Marti Mackenzie, said the woman’s life was in danger in the 2005 case and that the woman specifically was sent to Pendergraft by other physicians who had examined her. The woman had been turned away when she initially sought an abortion at an unnamed hospital.

“People sought him out because of his expertise so she could have this necessary termination as quickly as possible,” Mackenzie said. “I strongly maintain that not only is [Pendergraft] not a danger to women, he is their only salvation in these cases.”

In addition to the 2005 incident, state documents also describe a 2004 abortion in which Pendergraft determined a pregnant woman to be at 22 weeks’ gestation. She was given medication to take at home to initiate uterine contractions and begin the abortion process.

But state records indicate that the woman progressed more quickly than expected and aborted the fetus at home before she could return to the clinic. A hospital later evaluated the fetus and estimated its gestational age at 25 to 27 weeks — putting it in the third trimester.

In both cases, the state claims “Dr. Pendergraft endangered two female patients by performing third-trimester abortions outside a hospital setting and without concurring certification from a second physician.”

Mackenzie said Pendergraft has reviewed the 2004 incident carefully and disputes the age of the fetus, which he claims was incorrectly estimated by techniques that are not recognized as being scientifically valid. She said Pendergraft is consulting with his attorneys so he can appeal the suspension of his license and the restrictions on his clinics.

A spokeswoman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees medical clinics, said the abortion restrictions on Pendergraft’s clinics in Tampa, Ocala and Fort Lauderdale would lift next week, but the Orlando sites are prohibited from offering abortions “indefinitely.”

Mackenzie couldn’t say how many women had been turned away in recent days, adding that women would be referred elsewhere if the situation warranted it.

Pendergraft has been dogged by controversy ever since he was initially convicted — then cleared — in an extortion case involving his business associate.

Pendergraft was convicted in February 2001 after he and a business associate filed a lawsuit against Marion County, saying his Ocala clinic was not given adequate protection against abortion protesters. The county claimed the lawsuit was part of an extortion plot to get it to pay the two to close the clinic. Pendergraft spent seven months in prison before an appeals court overturned his conviction in July 2002.

He later pleaded guilty in 2004 to a single count of accessory after the fact to making false statements.


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