Here’s a conundrum for anti-choice campaigners in West Virginia: What’s worse? Having one of their most prominent activists admit he lied to the state attorney general and, through him, to the public? Or having that campaigner face disciplinary actions by the state medical board for breaching state legal requirements?
Those appear to be the choices facing prominent anti-choice activist Dr. Byron Calhoun, who is vice chair of the West Virginia University Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, as a result of some headline-grabbing claims he made in a letter to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey last June.
“We commonly (I personally probably at least weekly) see patients at Women’s and Children’s Hospital with complications from abortions at these centers in Charleston: so much for ‘safe and legal,’” wrote Calhoun. “These patients are told to come to our hospital because the abortion clinic providers do not have hospital privileges to care for their patients, so we must treat them as emergency ‘drop-ins.’”
It’s an alarming allegation—painting a scene of countless women seeking help after injuries from abortions—and one that fits perfectly into the newly revamped anti-choice rhetoric that focuses on “protecting” women, instead of fetuses.
Calhoun, though, has never provided a shred of evidence to support those frightening claims.
Nor, it turns out, has he ever reported a single incident of an abortion-related injury to the West Virginia Board of Medicine, the body responsible for regulating and disciplining doctors in that state.
And that’s what gives rise to Calhoun’s current dilemma.
Under West Virginia law, a medical doctor is required to report any issues relating to another physician’s standard of care or competency to the medical board, according its executive director, Robert C. Knittle.
In an email to RH Reality Check, Knittle said the law “stipulates that a physician may be disciplined if they failed to report” issues of that nature.
Knittle also noted that the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics requires doctors to report instances of “incompetence or substandard care” to the appropriate clinical authority so it can assess the potential impact on patient welfare.
But Knittle confirmed that Calhoun has made no such report to the state medical board.
“The West Virginia Board of Medicine is not aware of any claims in reference to any hospital regarding alleged injuries stemming from abortions,” Knittle said.
Reproductive health advocates say Calhoun’s failure to report the alleged injuries to women casts further doubt over the veracity of those claims.
“The reason he hasn’t made these reports, I would imagine, is because there are no reports to make,” said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. “He’s making unfounded assertions based on his own political agenda, which is not fitting for the vice chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at a major university.”
Indeed, Calhoun’s political agenda is well known. He serves as the national medical advisor to the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a prominent anti-choice group. Neither Calhoun nor the institute replied to RH Reality Check’s emails seeking comment for this story.
In his letter to Morrisey, Calhoun claimed he was not the only university employee who frequently sees women with injuries stemming from abortions. If his claims are true, that could leave other WVU staff open to disciplinary proceedings.
A spokesperson said the university has no comment on these matters.
Based on the available evidence, it appears that Calhoun has a tough choice to make: Either he can produce the evidence to back up his claims, and risk disciplinary action for his failure to fulfill his legal and ethical duties to report those injures. Or he must admit that he did not have that evidence, and that the claims were untrue.
Either way, pro-choice advocates are calling for swift action.
“Calhoun should be required to provide evidence for his assertions, which are not credible based on the safety of abortion,” said Saporta, who noted that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States. “If he’s making unfounded assertions as the vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at West Virginia University, he should face disciplinary proceedings.”