Dr. S. Michael Freiman, 85, pioneer physician in pro-choice practice

S. Michael Freiman, M.D.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Dr. S. Michael Freiman, a local physician who performed the first legal abortion in Missouri after the Roe v. Wade decision, died last Thursday, July 17, at his Clayton home. Family members said he had been diagnosed with lung cancer last January. He was 85 and had been a longtime resident of University City.

Seymour Milton Freiman was born June 11, 1929, in Newark, N.J., the son of Sol and Sabina Brand Freiman, Polish Jewish immigrants who owned and operated a grocery store in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood. Growing up, he once lived in the same neighborhood as the acclaimed author Philip Roth, and remembers an incident in which he “punched Philip.” They later made up. He was a graduate of Barringer High School in Newark.

Dr. Freiman later changed his first name to Michael. He applied for admission to Johns Hopkins University, but was rejected. His widow, Sarijane Freiman, told the Jewish Light, “Michael did not like to take no for an answer and had the chutzpah to go straight to the admissions office at Johns Hopkins. In a rare instance of honesty, the officials there told him that while they would love to admit him, the university had already filled its quota of Jewish students from the East Coast.”

He later received a recruitment form from the University of Montana, which he learned did not restrict Jewish enrollment. He earned a bachelor of arts degree with honors in chemistry there in 1951.

One of Dr. Freiman’s Montana University professors noted his academic proficiency in pre-med subjects and encouraged him to go to medical school. He applied to the Washington University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1955.

He served a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, and traveled to locations from Okinawa to Lebanon. He finished part of his residency in the St. Alban Naval Hospital. Dr. Freiman returned to St. Louis and met and married the former Sarijane Mogerman in 1960, while he was in training and she was working in the blood bank.

Dr. Freiman served as a clinical assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University, where he helped start the Hartford Cytogenetics Laboratory at Barnes Hospital along with his colleagues, Dr. Ralph Wolf and Dr. Alfie Sherman. Dr. Freiman served as co-director from 1962-1966.

He also headed the infertility clinic under Dr. William Masters, the famous St. Louis sex researcher and therapist, who with his partner, Virginia Johnson, published major studies of human sexuality. Masters and Johnson inspired the fictionalized Showtime hit, “Masters of Sex,” based on a 2009 book.

Dr. Freiman became an advocate for legal and safe abortions after a cousin died as a result of a botched illegal abortion. That traumatic incident, which occurred when he was a teen during the 1940s, caused him to ask why women did not have a legal and safe choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. He got his opportunity to deploy his skills as a gynecologist after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which struck down as unconstitutional a Texas statute that banned abortions.

Dr. Freiman, soon after the ruling was handed down, contacted Judith Widdicombe, a registered nurse and a leading local pro-choice advocate. As a result of the call, Widdicombe set up the Reproductive Health Services in May 1973. She hired Dr. Freiman as the de facto medical director, while another physician held the actual title.

That very month, Dr. Freiman performed the first legal abortion in Missouri in 139 years, except for cases in which the woman was in danger of dying or if she was legally insane. He continued to work at Reproductive Health Services from 1978 to 1986, when he stepped down.

Dr. Freiman kept a low public profile on his work as a pioneer in the filed of reproductive choice, not out of fear but because seeking publicity was not part of his personality. Early in his work, he and his wife feared that his work by lead to his being arrested, and he did receive death threats and accusations to his children that their father was a “baby-killer.”

One of Dr. Freiman’s daughters, Carla Freiman Feuer of Creve Coeur, told the Light, “Once I came home from school in tears after being taunted by other students for having a ‘baby-killer’ dad. My dad explained to me that he wanted this procedure to be available to women in a legal and medically safe setting. 

“Dad was a passionate advocate on the entire area of women’s health. He often consulted local clergy, including many rabbis on questions of medical ethics. As the needs of his patients evolved from infertility and obstetrics all the way through post-menopause, so did his practice evolve to treat them.”

He also performed the first local in utero transfusion, according to his widow.

Funeral services for Dr. Freiman were held Sunday at Congregation Temple Israel, where Rabbis Amy Feder and Michael Alper officiated. Burial was at the B’nai Amoona Cemetery.

Feder said that Dr. Freiman “regularly attended Torah study on Shabbat mornings at Temple Israel. He had an incredible sense of yiddishkeit, an intellectual interest in theology and was famous for asking incredibly difficult and provocative questions in class.”

She added, “His patients adored him. Years after he retired, they would still call him, just to have the chance to talk to him.”

Dr. Freiman and his wife took numerous courses at the Central Agency for Jewish Education and were proud graduates of the Melton School.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Rebecca T. Freiman of Clayton; a son, Matthew Freiman of Jacksonville, Fla., and a grandson.

Memorial contributions preferred to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, BJC Hospice, Congregation Temple Israel, or the charity of the donor’s choice.