As West Virginia’s governor considers whether to sign that state’s new 20-week abortion ban, he might also consider the way a discredited doctor’s work influenced the bill’s passage.
The doctor, Byron Calhoun, has been caught grossly overstating the number of women who are admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) with complications related to abortions. He is the subject of a formal complaint by state lawmakers to the West Virginia Medical Board, and he has official positions with overtly anti-choice groups.
Yet Calhoun’s influence has permeated West Virginia’s march toward passing this new restriction, which would see a further fetter placed on women’s constitutional right to access abortion in that state.
First came Calhoun’s letter sent to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey last summer, in which Calhoun claimed that women were coming to CAMC’s emergency department at least once a week with complications stemming from abortion.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Those claims have now been debunked; they were contradicted by CAMC’s own medical records, as Rewire reported.
Now, Rewire can also report that the Beltway anti-choice group Americans United for Life (AUL) submitted a lengthy bundle of documents to Morrisey as part of the attorney general’s so-called inquiry into abortion regulation in West Virginia. AUL’s submission included an undated article co-written by Calhoun and AUL’s staff counsel, Mailee R. Smitt. Rewire obtained the AUL submission via a public records request.
The article, titled, “Significant Potential for Harm,” contained many of the familiar tropes of the anti-choice movement, which have been rejected by the broad consensus of medical and scientific opinion.
For instance, the article devotes substantial space to the specious claims that women who have abortions are more likely to develop breast cancer, because—the logical leap-frogging goes—carrying children to term can lower the risk of breast cancer, and therefore, they argue, having an abortion increases the risk by reducing the number of full-term pregnancies.
And during last week’s committee hearings on the 20-week ban, a representative of an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center read aloud from a letter that Calhoun had drafted, in which Calhoun claimed that fetuses at 16 to 20 weeks’ gestation react “when they feel the needle” during an amniocentesis, and concluded that fetuses at that gestational age therefore feel pain, according to the Register Herald.
While Calhoun did not attend the judiciary committee hearing himself, a number of other experts, including Calhoun’s colleagues from CAMC, did attend. They strongly disputed both Calhoun’s scientific claims as well as his stance on the bill.
Two doctors from CAMC disputed the notion that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks’ gestation, the Register Herald reported.
“The issue of fetal pain is theoretical and is based on the development of the central nervous system,” said Dr. Luis Bracero, who, like Calhoun, specializes in maternal-fetal pain. Bracero said the requisite development does not take place until 24 to 26 weeks’ gestation.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, a woman’s rights group, is calling on West Virginia University (WVU) to take action to curb the continued influence of Calhoun’s debunked claims.
“Dr. Calhoun’s claims about abortion care being unsafe have been thoroughly discredited,” she wrote in a statement to Rewire. “We hope that CAMC and WVU will take appropriate action to prevent the continuation of Dr. Calhoun’s lies.”
Lawmakers did not immediately respond to Rewire’s requests for comments on this story.
The bill, which passed with the support of many state Democrats, now awaits signature from the governor.
Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.
“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote theNew York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”
“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”
Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equality; declaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”
Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.
But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:
Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations
Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:
We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.
Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:
We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.
The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.
Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”
Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt
In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:
We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.
The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewireexplained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:
As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”
All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”
Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain
The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:
Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.
Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.
Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.
Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”
In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:
Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.
Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”
There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”
As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.
Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”
Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:
We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.
Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.
Ten additional states have sued the Obama administration over federal guidance advising public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming filed the lawsuit Friday in a Nebraska U.S. District Court. In doing so, the states will make their case in a conservative jurisdiction that provides a pipeline to the similarly right-leaning Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The latest lawsuit brings the number of states pursuing legal action over the guidance to 21. In May, 11 states and state officials sued the Obama administration in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, viewed as a similarly friendly environment for the plaintiffs. Both complaints rely on a legal claim designed to appeal directly to conservative judges.
A U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson at the time nevertheless expressed confidence in the administration’s legal standing about what amounts to “significant guidance,” which lacks the force of law or an executive order. The complaints charge that the guidance failed to go through notice-and-comment rulemaking, but as explained by Rewire’s Imani Gandy, the administration doesn’t need the public to weigh in on guidance that clarifies existing laws. Typically, the contents of a guidance document do not amount to an “injury in fact,” the basis for successful lawsuits.
Most of the states in the lawsuits have Republican administrations in place. Montana, West Virginia, and Louisiana have Democratic governors.