MELBOURNE, May 30, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - An abortion centre anesthetist who has been under investigation since early 2010 was charged Friday with endangering the lives of his patients. The charges follow an investigation into a rash of Hepatitis C infections which surfaced in women who had been under his care while aborting their children at Melbourne’s Croydon Day Surgery.

James Latham Peters, 61, who worked as an anesthetist at the Melbourne abortion mill, was charged with 54 counts each of conduct endangering life, negligence causing serious injury and recklessness causing serious injury. The charge of conduct endangering life carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Prosecutor Helen Faturous told the court it would take some time to prepare the brief of evidence because of the case’s complexities. However, the charge presented to the court stated, “The accused ... recklessly engage(d) in ... using and sharing intravenously administered anaesthetic drugs ... knowing he was infected with the hepatitis C virus, (which) may have placed person/s in danger of death.”

Hepatitis C is spread by blood-to-blood or sexual contact and attacks the liver, in some cases causing cirrhosis and liver cancer. The most common way it is spread is by the sharing of needles.

The police began their investigation last April after the Victoria state Department of Health initially noticed a cluster of three Hepatitis C-infected women who had attended Croydon Day Surgery, and subsequently found others infected with the same strain of the disease.

The Department of Health investigated the clinic’s infection control practices without finding any breaches of procedure. After staff members were tested for the virus, however, all were found to be negative, except for the anesthetist, Dr. Peters. Tests confirmed that his Hepatitis C strain matched the strain of the infected women.

“That’s precisely why, back in early last year, we referred these matters to the police for further investigation — because our investigation could find no plausible reason as to why the infection took place,” said Bram Alexander, a spokesman for the Victoria state Department of Health.

Police said the investigation will continue until all the clients of the clinic between 2006 and 2009 have been tested for the infection, and that Dr. Peters could face further charges.

At least 4000 women who used the centre, now known as the Marie Stopes Centre, have already been tested, according to the Herald Sun.

Paula Shelton of Slater and Gordon law firm has said the 54 women infected with Hepatitis C are considering mounting a class action suit against Dr. Peters, and possibly the clinic, the Medical Practitioners Board, and the Health Department.

“The civil and criminal processes are separate and we have not ruled anything out in our investigations,” Ms. Shelton told the media.

“Today’s charges do not let anyone else or other bodies potentially involved in this matter off the hook. The information that’s gained throughout any criminal proceedings will be evidence that’s relevant in any class action.”

Deputy chief magistrate Jelena Popovic approved bail of $200,000 and ordered Peters to surrender of his passport and appear in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on September 30.

The Victoria state Department of Health advises women who attended Croydon Day Surgery from 2006 to 2009 to contact Victoria’s Hepatitis C information line at 1300 651 650.