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GOP Fact-Check: Hospital Transfers Don’t Signal Abortion Dangers

Christine Grimaldi

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) justified her recent subpoenas of a prominent later abortion provider and first responders in the community where he works by pointing to “public reports” that people who sought abortion care from the doctor required hospital transfers.

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire. In fact, the rare instances signal a continued commitment to appropriate patient care that begins in an abortion clinic. A patient may not require further treatment upon arrival at the hospital, indicating a proactive clinic rather than a dangerous one. Regardless of the circumstances, anti-choice activists often hijack so-called emergencies to fuel their coverage of the alleged dangers of abortion care.

Freestanding clinics manage most immediate abortion-related complications, including those that occur during later abortions, said Dr. Daniel Grossman, a provider and professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of California, San Francisco.

Abortion-related complications are rare throughout all stages of pregnancy. The even rarer event that such complications necessitate a hospital transfer doesn’t indicate the work of a bad abortion provider, Grossman explained in an interview with Rewire.

“There are sometimes things that happen that are unforeseeable,” he said.

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Evidence Contradicts Blackburn Subpoena Claims

Grossman, his University of California, San Francisco colleague Dr. Ushma Upadhyay, and other reproductive health care practitioners and policy experts studied just how often those unforeseeable instances occur in a review of nearly 55,000 abortions covered under the fee-for-service California Medicaid program from 2009-2010. The state data allowed researchers to track subsequent follow-up care sought after an abortion.

Among all abortions, about one of 5,491, or 0.03 percent, involved ambulance transfers to emergency departments on the day of the procedure, the researchers found.

For procedures in the second trimester or later, major complications that required hospital admissions, blood transfusions, or surgery amounted to 34 cases, or 0.41 percent.

Many hospitals don’t provide abortions, which essentially forces providers to perform the procedure at a freestanding clinic or turn away patients, Grossman said. Providers would not do something unsafe, he stressed, “but that puts a lot of pressure on them because they don’t have that option of deciding to do the procedure of a higher-risk patient in a hospital.”

States that have enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, known as TRAP laws, may force providers to gain hospital admitting privileges, even though hospitals can’t refuse to care for transfers and emergency arrivals. Many hospitals don’t want to issue admitting privileges to abortion providers, Grossman said, in part because their patient admissions are so infrequent—putting the onus back on clinics to provide abortion care.

Data supports Grossman’s assessment about abortion and clinic safety. Abortion care is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States, according to Planned Parenthood and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The rate of complications increases as a woman’s pregnancy continues, but these complications remain very unlikely,” the groups said in a joint fact sheet.

Blackburn, the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, framed such instances differently when she shifted the panel’s focus from fetal tissue research practices to later abortion care, issuing subpoenas in mid-May to Dr. LeRoy Carhart and various local and state entities in Maryland.

“Public reports indicate at least five women have been sent to the hospital since December while seeking an abortion in this clinic,” Blackburn said in a press release. Blackburn expressed concern for “the sake of the women who have been rushed from that clinic to the hospital with increasing frequency.”

Blackburn Allegations Rooted in Dubious Sources

Blackburn’s press release cited the five hospital transfers since December 2015, but her subpoenas demand documentation dating back to 2010—signaling a deeper scope to her investigation.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF), the professional association of abortion providers, countered Blackburn’s basis for the subpoenas.

“Abortion opponents have been targeting Dr. Carhart for years because he is a very vocal and visible abortion provider,” NAF spokesperson Melissa Fowler told Rewire in an email. Following the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, Carhart arguably became the country’s most prominent provider of later abortion care.

The Maryland Board of Physicians, one of the targets of Blackburn’s subpoenas, indicates that Carhart is in good standing. The board’s online practitioner profile system lists no Maryland disciplinary actions, no pending charges, and no reported malpractice judgments and arbitration awards within the past ten years. Malpractice settlements are another measure of provider competence, and Carhart hasn’t had three or more malpractice settlements of at least $150,000 in the past five years, according to the system. Additionally, the courts have not reported “convictions for any crime involving moral turpitude,” which the board defines as “conduct evidencing moral baseness” and determines on an individual basis under common law.  

Absent allegations on the board’s website, the “public reports” smearing Carhart appear to come from anti-choice news outlets. In March, LifeSiteNews.com cited eyewitness accounts from anti-choice activists in reporting that Carhart sent a fourth woman to the hospital in four months. A leader of the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue covered the same allegations for LifeNews.com.

The same website in 2013 alleged that the Washington Post downplayed the death of a young woman who sought a later abortion at the clinic. However, the Maryland medical examiner’s office found that the woman died of natural causes from a rare complication that can also occur in conjunction with childbirth, and state health officials found “no deficiencies” in the care she received at the clinic. Blackburn’s subpoenas include Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, formerly Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where the woman died.

Anti-choice organizations and their reports have played a prominent role in the current congressional inquiry. Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, and David Daleiden founded the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that triggered the select panel’s investigation into allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations obtained from abortions.

Blackburn referenced CMP’s heavily edited videos in her threat “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from StemExpress, the tissue procurement company that worked with Planned Parenthood. The GOP’s exhibits at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” reportedly duplicated or nearly duplicated the “evidence” in the CMP attack videos.

Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson denied that the subpoenas are based on information from anti-choice sources.

“The subpoenas we issued are not based on the sources you have cited,” the spokesperson told Rewire in an email. “However, due to confidentiality agreements, we are not at liberty to disclose the identities of our sources.”

Anti-Choice Activists Hijack Emergencies

Although Blackburn’s evidence may come from different sources, the fact remains that Operation Rescue and other radical anti-choice activists are known for surveilling abortion clinics and making repeated records requests, all to report similar claims about botched abortions necessitating hospital transfers.

duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, said surveillance tactics enable anti-choice activists not only to photograph and video emergency responders, but also follow up with Freedom of Information Act and equivalent state-level requests for records, including 9-1-1 tapes, if state laws permit their release.

“They collect data,” Gaines said in an interview. “They put that up on the websites themselves, on their own Facebook pages, and have no real knowledge about what or why an ambulance may have been contacted.”

Hospital transfers in some instances have nothing to do with the procedure. Contrary to initial anti-choice accounts, the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star reported that a woman transferred in 2015 from a local Planned Parenthood to a hospital “wasn’t suffering complications from an abortion, but had instead sought help at the clinic after being assaulted at her home nearby.”

At times, anti-choice activists may manufacture emergency scenarios, Gaines said. “The most obvious example is alleging that a minor is inside being forced to undergo a procedure against her will, and that can happen if they see a minor go in [to a clinic],” she said.

Rewire reported in March that police appeared at a Mississippi clinic and threatened to charge a single mother with fetal homicide after her daughter, a minor seeking a legal abortion, signed a bogus Life Dynamics document stating that she was being coerced into the procedure.

The prominent anti-choice group uses the document to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing abortion care.

NAF President Vicki Saporta said that many of her group’s members have experienced anti-choice tactics such as staking out clinics for emergency vehicles, placing calls to summon emergency responders, and trailing ambulances to hospitals with the aim of gathering confidential patient information. Preferred tactics depend on the local anti-choice community, she said.

Saporta pointed to a crisis pregnancy center that opened in the same complex as the Germantown, Maryland, clinic where Carhart practices. A Germantown Pregnancy Choices, which comes up as the Maryland Coalition for Life when entered into Google Maps, operates within less than 200 feet of the clinic. The Maryland Coalition for Life cited eyewitness accounts and a video in March to support allegations that an underage girl required a hospital transfer “due to medical emergencies related to a late term abortion.”

Anti-choice activists targeting clinics over safety share a common denominator. “Once their bogus claims are investigated, for the most part, no action is taken because nothing is actionable,” Saporta said.

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