Dr. Ben Munson dies at 87 in Vt.
At the end, Dr. H. Benjamin Munson was an old man lost in the haze of dementia half a nation away from his home in Rapid City, where he once inspired both love and hate as South Dakota's only known abortion provider.
Munson, who challenged both South Dakota law and prevailing religious beliefs in 1967 when he began performing abortions for women from South Dakota and beyond, died Sunday in Burlington, Vt., of ailments related to Alzheimer's disease. His obituary is on Page C2.
He was 87. His memory was gone. His life was confined to a Burlington nursing home, where he moved six years ago to be close to his son, Richard, as the bright light in his mind faded to darkness.
During his decline, Ben Munson became someone far removed from the relentless lightning rod of controversy he became during the 20 years — 1967 through 1986 — that he operated an abortion clinic in Rapid City. Yet his passing still brought passionate replies from those who loved him — and those who didn't.
"It makes me feel good," Rapid City abortion opponent Pat Bowlby said Tuesday when told of Munson's death. "I hope that he has reconciled himself with the Lord before he died. I hope he made his penance. I don't wish him to go to hell."
Bowlby, however, and many of her anti-abortion allies for years wished Munson would go away. As past state and city president of Right to Life, the prominent anti-abortion group, Bowlby was a longtime Munson foe. She said Munson and his work were examples of good intentions gone bad.
"In the beginning, the way I understand it, he thought he was doing good and helping women out," she said. "But actually, he was killing babies."
Many disagreed. Thousands of them were women who came to Munson's clinic for abortions, even before the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that right in law in 1973.
It took exceptional strength and courage to challenge the law and conservative West River values to provide safe abortions for women who deserved that choice, Sioux Falls abortion-rights advocate Thelma Underberg said.
"Ben was quite sure of his position, and he was right about it," Underberg, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League for South Dakota, said. "It took a lot of courage to do that in any community in South Dakota, but certainly in Rapid City."
Munson chanced jail when he responded to requests from women patients to begin performing abortions. State law threatened a three-year prison term and other penalties for illegal abortions. In 1969, Munson was arrested and charged with performing an illegal abortion on a 19-year-old woman.
Munson won at the circuit court level. The state appealed, and the state Supreme Court ruled against Munson. His further appeals became moot when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973.
That same year, Munson performed an abortion on a Groton woman who died three days later in an Aberdeen hospital. Then-Attorney General Bill Janklow charged Munson with "culpable negligence" in the woman's death, but 7th Circuit Judge Merton Tice Jr. directed the jury to acquit the doctor because the state's case was inadequate.
Rapid City lawyer Homer Kandaras represented Munson in the case and had previously worked with Munson on anti-discrimination committees in Rapid City. Kandaras said Tuesday that Munson was a good-hearted man who jeopardized his own medical practice and personal well-being to help women who had made a choice to end their pregnancies.
"Believe me, he didn't do it for the money," Kandaras said. "He thought it was absolutely essential that women have the right to make that decision themselves. That's what it was all about for him."
Richard Munson was already in college when his father began offering abortions. The issue was so contentious and confusing that it was unsettling for the family, Richard Munson said.
"It was hard for us to sort out what we thought, with Dad out there on the line. I was a little nervous to think about him being wrong," Munson said. "It was kind of a loyalty issue. At the same time, I had doubts about whether he was really doing the right thing. It took a long time to sort that out."
Munson said years and some perspective clarified things for him. He came to believe in his dad and his work.
"At the time Dad started doing it, women were dying out there, getting desperate and trying to do it themselves or whatever," he said. "I think he did the right thing for the time. I still think it's a woman's right. That's my personal opinion."
The family's other children dealt with their high-profile father and his work in their own ways, Munson said. They included former Rapid City Mayor Jerry Munson, who couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
Richard Munson said his father was a complex man with a bright mind, many interests and many strong beliefs, including civil rights for minorities. That part of him was often overlooked because of the abortion battles, Munson said.
As for the notion that Ben Munson needed to atone for his abortions before his death, his son finds that offensive.
"Dad was a very spiritual man. But I think that's his business," Richard Munson said. "It's not for Pat Bowlby or anyone else to impose their notion on what God wants."
Contact Kevin Woster at 394.8413 or email@example.com