There is now proof positive that Byron Calhoun, an anti-choice doctor who has been influential in West Virginia politics, grossly overstated the number of abortion-related complications that are treated at Charleston Area Medical Center Women and Children’s Hospital in West Virginia each year.
In June 2013, Calhoun wrote a letter to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in which he claimed that, “We commonly (I personally probably at least weekly) see patients at Women and Children’s Hospital with complications from abortions at these centers in Charleston.”
But Calhoun never provided evidence to support that claim, despite numerous requests to do so. And as Rewire discovered, he made no report of those injuries to the West Virginia Medical Board. Upon learning of our findings, a state legislator filed a complaint with the medical board, asking it to investigate Calhoun.
Now, Calhoun’s claim is being contradicted by S. Andrew Weber, the vice president and administrator of the hospital where Calhoun works, and where he claimed to have seen those complications.
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In a letter dated January 16, 2014, Weber catalogued all incidents of complications relating to abortion for “patients presenting to the emergency department at CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital” in 2012.
The total? Two complications relating to legal abortions were reported that year.
Weber noted an additional three complications “following abortion or ectopic and molar pregnancies.” While Weber did not detail whether these complications actually related to abortion—or rather, to ectopic and molar pregnancies—even assuming that they were related to abortion, that brings the documented complications for 2012 to a grand total of five.
Five. Not “weekly” complications. Not even close.
Weber’s letter was addressed to Patricia Holmes White, a former state legislator who is now the executive director of West Virginia Health Right, an association of free health clinics. White asked Weber for the detailed information about abortion-related complications in a January 8, 2014, letter that was co-signed by seven health and women’s rights professionals.
“We are writing to express our concern regarding allegations made by Dr. Byron Calhoun that women present weekly in the Emergency Department of Women and Children’s Hospital and Charleston Area Medical Center with complications from abortion,” White wrote. “Dr. Calhoun’s allegations raise serious questions for the public, the Charleston medical community and Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University have an obligation to set the record straight.”
(Calhoun is vice chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at West Virginia University.)
Weber’s disclosure has led to calls from West Virginia women’s rights groups for further investigation into Calhoun by the medical board, which has already received a complaint against the doctor.
“The striking disparity between Dr. Calhoun’s assertion and the reality reflected in the actual hospital records is undeniable,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, a co-signer of the letter and executive director of WV Free, a nonprofit organization that promotes reproductive rights and justice. “We now know with certainty that the public and the government have been mislead by a physician with a political agenda.”
Calhoun did not respond to Rewire’s requests for comment on this story. Nor did the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an anti-choice group that names Calhoun as its national medical advisor.
However, in a December 23, 2013 letter to Nancy Peoples Guthrie, the legislator who filed the complaint against him with the medical board, Calhoun doubled-down on his claims.
“My statements were directed at ‘complications from abortions,’ which covers a broad spectrum of medical problems,” he wrote. “These range from minor bleeding, a common side effect of abortion, to more serious complications. As I stated, complications from abortions are quite common in our emergency room. Due to my position as a high risk perinatologist and on-call physician, I see and treat many of the women that come to our hospital with these problems.”
Weber did not return our calls seeking comment for this story, so Rewire was unable to obtain his response to Calhoun’s additional claims.
Calhoun’s evidence has been influential in shaping efforts to restrict abortion access in West Virginia.
For instance, last September, West Virginians for Life circulated a document calling on legislators to “opt out” of providing abortion in the state’s health insurance exchange. The document quoted Calhoun’s June letter, including the now-debunked claims about abortion-related complications.
West Virginians for Life did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
Reproductive rights advocates expect this year to see a number of attempts to wind back abortion access in West Virginia. Based on his public comments, it appears Attorney General Morrisey is determined to strip away women’s access to safe, legal abortion.
Chapman Pomponio says she is distressed that Calhoun’s claims appear to have had an influence on the debate over women’s rights in the state.
“West Virginia women and families deserve better than this,” said Chapman Pomponio in an email to Rewire. “Policy making should be based on facts and need, not political whims, falsehoods and bullying.”