In 20-Week Abortion Ban, West Virginia Lawmakers Relied on Discredited Doctor

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In 20-Week Abortion Ban, West Virginia Lawmakers Relied on Discredited Doctor

Sharona Coutts

As West Virginia’s governor considers whether to sign that state’s new 20-week abortion ban, he might also consider how the work of discredited doctor Byron Calhoun influenced the bill’s passage.

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.

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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.

Dr. Stephen Bush, also at CAMC, and chair of West Virginia University’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, also opposed the bill’s provisions that would criminalize doctors.

“This will eliminate our ability to take care of patients,” Bush said, according to the Register Herald. “This is very upsetting to us.”

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.