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Did a doctor order her left ‘dead or alive’? Revisiting an abortion tale

When antiabortion activist Penny Hopper was scheduled to give a speech in 2014 on what she describes as her survival of an abortion in 1955, she titled her talk “Baby Wins Battle for Life.” That was also the headline of an article that appeared in a local Florida newspaper at the time of her birth, describing the 104 days she spent in an Isolette, a relatively new incubator at the time that was saving many premature babies.

That same article and other contemporary newspaper accounts call into question key elements of Hopper’s story about her entry into the world — a story she has told repeatedly as she has campaigned against abortion and in support of legislation requiring that doctors performing an abortion offer emergency medical care if the baby is somehow born alive. Such a law was signed in Hopper’s home state of Florida in 2013. Similar legislation, the proposed Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, has languished in Congress for several years.

Hopper’s story has received scrutiny ever since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned it during the first Republican presidential primary debate. “I know a lady in Florida named Penny,” he said Aug. 23. “She survived multiple abortion attempts. She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital.” Late-term abortions are an important part of Republican messaging on abortion, even though just 1.3 percent of abortions occur at 21 weeks or higher.

Reconstructing events that took place nearly 70 years ago is difficult. The doctor and nurses involved have died. Contemporary news accounts are contradictory or may themselves have errors. Hopper relies on what she says are the recollections of others, including her father and two aunts — who have also died.

For instance, Hopper says that the doctor heading the small hospital in Wauchula, Fla., where she was born ordered her tossed out “dead or alive” — and that she was discovered the next day on the hospital porch wrapped in a towel in a bedpan. But the article with the headline featured in her speech, which appeared in the Lakeland Ledger, instead says the Wauchula hospital staff spent nine days keeping her alive before she was rushed to a hospital supplied with an incubator. Other newspaper accounts provide a much shorter timeline but also credit the Wauchula hospital staff with trying to save her before her transfer.

Indeed, the doctor in question had a reputation as a caring professional who worked 365 days a year in the small rural community, according to interviews and the memoir of another doctor. In that era, before the development of lifesaving drugs and equipment, experts say, it’s also surprising that such a premature baby could survive the night without medical assistance, as the lungs would not be well developed enough for the infant to breathe on her own.

Questioned about some of the apparent contradictions, Penny’s husband, Bryan, said: “We give a lot of credit to God.”

Wauchula, located along Florida’s Peace River and calling itself the “cucumber capital of the world,” in 1955 had a population of about 3,000 people. The surrounding county had about 10,000 people, according to the 1950 U.S. Census.

It was a small town, and Miles A. Collier was the town doctor. Along with nurses, he ran a 25-bed hospital from the time he bought it in 1948 until he died, at the age of 50, in 1960. Officially it was called the Wauchula Infirmary, but it was commonly known as Dr. Collier’s Hospital, residents said.

Born in 1909 in Georgia, Collier earned his Florida medical license in 1937, according to a list of new physicians published in the Tampa Times. He arrived in Wauchula soon after, according to his military records.

“He had a full service general hospital with a lab, X-ray, operating room, little emergency room plus an office, so he was a one-man show doing all that work himself with some very, very good nurses but there were no physicians’ assistants and no practitioners,” recalled Barbara Castleberry Carlton in her 2009 memoir, “This Nearly Was Mine, A Journey Through Carlton Country.” Carlton served as a visiting physician at the hospital starting in late 1958 when Collier came down with an illness that eventually took his life. “It was daylight to dawn, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

In the book, Carlton includes commentary from Collier’s wife, Nifta. “He loved medicine better than anything. It was his whole life and we understood it so we didn’t bother him,” Nifta said, adding: “He’d do everything for his practice … his patients. His patients always came first. We were second.”

Penny was born with the name Miriam Browder, but from birth she has been known as Penny. One newspaper account says the nurses in the hospital gave her that nickname because of her copper-red hair. Since she became active in the antiabortion movement more than a decade ago, she has told slightly different versions of what happened to her.

In a 2014 interview, for instance, she said she was placed in a basket. Three years ago, she said she was left in a bedpan. Her husband says that is because her father sugarcoated the story originally for her, but she later learned from her aunts about being placed in a bedpan.

Hopper, who has an older brother, says her father told her they could not afford another child. He and her mother had successfully aborted an earlier fetus by using a coat hanger, Hopper says he told her. They tried to abort again, Hopper says, when her mother was pregnant with her, but there were complications and they went to the hospital.

Hopper, in her various interviews, has never named the doctor who is central to the story. Dennis Archambault, a son of Jeanne Archambault, a Wauchula hospital administrator who Carlton said was known as Collier’s “girl Friday,” said his mother confirmed that Collier delivered Penny.

“The doctor arrived at the clinic in his pajamas and night shoes,” Hopper said in a 2020 interview for Faces of Choice, an antiabortion group. “After examining my mother, he listened for a heart beating. He said, ‘I do not hear a heart beating. We are going to have to abort.’”

“He induced the abortion by giving my mother a shot. He looked at both my parents, and he said, ‘You do not want this baby to live. If it lives, it will be a burden on you the rest of your lives.’ Before returning home, he looked at the nurse, and he gave her orders to discard the baby, dead or alive.”

After her mother gave birth, Hopper says, she made a squeaking noise and her mother asked a nurse why a dead infant would make a noise. “Honey, don’t worry about it, all miscarriages do that,” the nurse supposedly replied.

“Under the doctor’s orders, I was wrapped in a face towel, discarded on the back porch of the hospital and was left there,” Hopper said in a 2013 radio interview. “My grandmother came down the following day and found me. She was livid. She didn’t expect to walk back there and find a live baby. I weighed one pound, 11 ounces.”

Hopper’s parents may well have tried to abort her in an era when abortion was illegal. But her account of how the hospital staff reacted is questionable.

Archambault said his mother, who died in 2014, did not speak in detail about Penny’s delivery, but she did say “the child was born extremely premature and was the victim of an at-home abortion.” But he added, “I don’t visualize my mother or anyone in that hospital putting a child on a porch for a grandmother to pick up.”

Collier’s children are still alive but were reluctant to speak at length to a reporter. His daughter, Nifta Davis, said she was 19 at the time and away at college. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said. “My father was very well thought of and a very capable doctor.” His son, Miles Jr., said he was 10 in 1955. “He was a very fine doctor who delivered thousands of babies in a small town.”

The local newspaper reports at the time offer contradictory accounts, especially regarding how long the Wauchula staff cared for her, but they never suggest the baby was left to die by the Wauchula hospital.

The Lakeland Ledger, in a detailed article when Hopper was released as a 5-pound 9-ounce baby, reported she was born on Nov. 20 and kept nine days at the Wauchula facility as the staff “put forth greater efforts to keep the little 1 lb, 11 ounce baby alive.” Then she was transferred to Lakeland’s Morrell Memorial Hospital on Nov. 29, the newspaper said. In another article after her release, the Wauchula Herald-Advocate described it as “a screaming police car escort.”

While traveling the 50 miles to Lakeland, the police escort hit another car. The Tampa Tribune, reporting on the accident, said the baby was being transported because “doctors advised incubation which was not available at Wauchula.”

Hopper’s driver’s license lists her birth date as Nov. 29, and the Wauchula Herald-Advocate report also says she was born on Nov. 29, as did the Tampa Tribune. Her husband says the Ledger’s account of her spending nine days at Collier’s hospital is wrong.

“I don’t think there was any malicious intent by the doctor,” he said. “He agreed it would be better if the baby passed.” He said his wife recorded her father’s “confession” about what happened on a VCR tape many years ago. Her brother could not be reached for comment, and another aunt did not respond to requests for comment.

Penny Hopper referred The Fact Checker to a spokesperson, who did not respond to a request for an interview. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, she disputed that the doctor initially tried to save her. “I don’t think there was any effort really put forth,” she said.

Medical experts say it is doubtful a baby born so prematurely would have survived overnight without medical attention, as babies so young do not have fully developed lungs. Weather records show the temperature on Nov. 29, 1955, in nearby Tampa ranged between 45 and 55 degrees; it was slightly warmer on Nov. 20.

“In 1955, the chance of a 23-week-old baby surviving 50-degree temperatures is about zero,” said Mary Jane Minkin, a gynecologist at the Yale School of Medicine. A full-term baby is born at 39 to 40 weeks.

The death of President John F. Kennedy’s son Patrick in 1963 of respiratory distress syndrome — when premature babies have difficulty breathing — prompted Congress to pass legislation that led to the development of pharmaceutical drugs that now save millions of babies a year, according to the 2015 book “Patrick Bouvier Kennedy: A Brief Life That Changed the History of Newborn Care.” Patrick was prematurely born at 34 weeks.

Moreover, the use of ultrasounds did not become widespread in the United States until the 1970s. Before ultrasounds, due date predictions were much less accurate. Newspaper reports on Penny’s survival indicate her mother’s due date was either March 12 or March 19, further indicating that Penny was born between 23 and 25 weeks. But medical experts said her reported weight at birth — 1 pound, 11 ounces — suggests it was more likely to be between 26 and 27 weeks.

Mary Ziegler, a historian of abortion at the University of California at Davis School of Law, said it was highly doubtful a doctor would have used the word “abort” in conversation with parents in 1955, “at a time when abortion was stigmatized and criminalized.”

Moreover, she said that starting in the 1930s, hospitals were prepared to treat women who had tried to self-abort, because such attempts often led to infections. Until the 1960s, she said, hospitals also tried to save the fetus after a botched abortion.

“It is surprising that a hospital dealing with a case like that would not make an effort to save the fetus,” she said. If the hospital in 1955 did what Hopper claims, “there probably would have been a criminal prosecution.”

We have documented that Hopper can claim that her parents tried to abort her and she survived. But the rest of her story — of a doctor and hospital staff who left her to die on the back porch — cannot be verified. Contemporary news reports and interviews suggest another scenario: After she was born in such a fragile state and after the Wauchula hospital staff realized she needed more help, they arranged for a police escort to rush the infant to a hospital that had a new type of incubator that helped save her life.

As the Wauchula Herald-Advocate put it: “Red-haired little Penny is home now with her parents and her big brother, four years old. Thanks to medical progress and vigilant nurses, this homecoming became a reality.”

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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