On June 12 of 1984, a thirteen-year-old girl went to West Park Hospital in Philadelphia seeking an abortion. She told the abortionist, Dr. Joseph Melnick, that she was about four months along (1).
It is unknown what steps, if any, Melnick took to verify the age of the baby, but the pregnancy turned out to be much more advanced. During the abortion, a three-pound, nine-ounce baby girl was born alive. The doctor ordered that no action be taken to help the infant. He immediately filled out a death certificate and waited for the child to die. A nurse defied the doctor and attempted to save the baby. She tore up the death certificate Dr. Melnick had written, and, when the child stopped breathing, she began administering CPR (2). Her lone efforts were not enough to save the little girl. The child lived for an hour and a half. She was not transferred to the ICU or given the care that a wanted newborn would have received. Only the anonymous nurse, who went unnamed in newspaper reports about the incident, tried to help her.
According to the autopsy, the child had a healthy head of hair and skin consistent with “a neonate” (newborn). The autopsy also determined that she was eight months old. Melnick was reported making the following understatement when he found out the autopsy results: “After the fact, it occurred to me that I had miscalculated [the baby’s age].”
Melnick was arrested and charged with homicide, involuntary manslaughter, infanticide, and two violations of the state’s Abortion Control Act, which forbade abortions after six months. Melnick argued that the baby had been stillborn, but a number of nurses testified that they had seen the baby gasping and moving (3).
Under questioning, Melnick broke down and admitted that the baby had indeed been breathing when it was born.
The defense attorney argued that a guilty conviction would have a “chilling effect” on abortion providers and claimed that the prosecution was motivated by opposition to abortion.
Judge Lynne Abraham may have agreed. She found Melnick guilty of only one charge, infanticide, for which the evidence was overwhelming. She gave him no fine or jail time – only probation and community service. In explaining why she did not fine Melnick, she said: “I know the resources of Dr. [Joseph Melnick] have been strained. Quite candidly, it’s not my intention to impoverish anyone by imposing fines.”
Incidentally, Melnick’s defense attorney was good friends with the judge who gave him such a light sentence. Defense lawyer Richard A. Sprague called himself a “friend and mentor” of judge Lynne Abraham. At the time of Melnick’s trial, they had been friends for years (4).
1. “Doctor Gets 3 Years’ Probation for Infanticide” New York Times, Late Edition 20 Dec 1989: A.24.
2. Linda Loyd “Doctor sentenced in abortion death” Houston Chronicle 20 Dec 1989: 11
3. National Report San Francisco Chronicle 20 Dec 1989
4. Daughen, Joseph R Iverson lawyer Sprague and Philadelphia district attorney on familiar ground Knight Ridder Tribune News Service [Washington] 25 July 2002: 1.
Leslie Bond. “Melnick Convicted Of Infanticide in Death of Live-Born Aborted Baby.” National Right to Life News, June 22, 1989, pages 1 and 11;
Debra Braun. “Murder Charge Dropped Against Abortionist.” National Right to Life News, March 14, 1985, pages 1 and 8.