San Diego

San Diego Abortion Doctor Surrenders Medical License

Robert Santella admits unprofessional conduct after a confrontation with an anti-abortion protester

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Dr. Santella's surrender of his medical license.

A longtime San Diego physician will close his medical practice December 31, and will not challenge accusations of gross negligence in patient care, and unprofessional conduct, during an altercation outside a local abortion clinic.

The Medical Board of California detailed those allegations in a 25-page accusation filed July 17 against Dr. Robert Santella. The Medical Board claimed Santella over-prescribed narcotics to six patients and botched an abortion on another patient. The Board also cited Santella's "aggressive" and "outrageous" behavior outside the Family Planning Associates abortion clinic on Miramar Road in June 2016 as a cause for revoking his license.

That confrontation was videotaped by two abortion protesters, including Zephaniah Mel, who went face-to-face with Santella outside the clinic entrance. The video shows Santella approaching Mel with a pair of scissors in his right hand.

Click here to see the video. 

As described in the accusation, Mel urged Santella to "stop murdering babies." In response, Santella "aggressively pressed his face to within inches of (Mel’s) face and angrily replied 'Why?'" According to the accusation, "When asked if he did that to babies, (Santella) replied in a guttural tone, 'Yeah, I love it!'"

In an interview with NBC 7 Investigates, Mel said he felt threatened when Santella approached him with the scissors.

"It was very close to the top of my chest, if not my neck," he said. "It was a very intense confrontation."

Mel said he backed away from Santella, and ended up very close to the railing on the second-floor walkway where the confrontation took place.

"(Santella) was leaning towards me inch-by-inch," Mel recalled. "I could have tipped over. I could have fallen from the second floor."

Santella’s attorney, Bob Frank, said because of the camera’s angle, there is no video footage of the confrontation that supports Mel’s claim that Santella threatened him with the scissors.

"I didn’t even see any scissors up against (Mel), from what I watched on the video, in any type of attack or threatening manner," Frank told NBC 7 Investigates.

However, a close look at the video clearly shows Santella raising the scissors toward's Mel's face.

In the accusation, the Medical Board’s executive director said Santella’s "outrageous conduct" and "physically threatening gestures" violated his profession's ethical code, and demonstrate Santella is unfit to practice medicine.

In a brief phone conversation, Santella told NBC 7 Investigates he lost his composure that day and regrets his behavior. He also said he will surrender his medical license rather than fight the accusation in the state’s administrative law court.

Just hours before NBC 7 Investigates aired this story, the Medical Board filed the surrender agreement. By signing that document, Santella admitted "...the truth of each and every charge and allegation..." in the Medical Board's accusation. According to the settlement, Santella's license surrender will take effect Decumber 31, ending his 44-year career as an OB-GYN specialist.

Santella's attorney, Bob Frank, said he has fashioned a strong defense for his client, but “those battles with the (Medical) Board are long and hard, and they’re very expensive.” According to Frank, that reality prompted Santella to instead negotiate the voluntary license surrender.

Frank said his client is proud of a career in which he "protected and honored women’s rights" by providing legal abortion services and reduced and no-fee medical care for underserved patients at his College Area office. Frank also said his client was deeply hurt when protesters denounced him as a "murderer" and "baby killer."

This latest accusation is Santella's third run-in with the medical board.

Documents show that in 1983, the Board placed Santella on five years' probation for gross negligence and incompetence. In 2000 he agreed to a four-year probation term for failing to maintain adequate medical records.

NBC 7 Investigates is reporting on medical professionals accused by the public and the California Medical Board of wrongdoing in order to bring information to the public and increase transparency of medical practices in the San Diego region. Currently, this information is reported by the Medical Board on its website.

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