A West Virginia legislator has filed a complaint against Dr. Byron Calhoun, a well-known anti-choice activist who has made unfounded claims about injuries relating to abortion in that state.
State Delegate Nancy Peoples Guthrie (D-Kanawha) filed the complaint with the West Virginia Board of Medicine, the agency charged with disciplining medical doctors licensed to practice in the Mountain State.
“In light of Dr. Byron Calhoun’s alarming claim that he sees “botched abortions” on a weekly basis … and given that the West Virginia Board of Medicine has no record of any claims in reference to any hospital visits regarding alleged injuries stemming from abortions, it is my opinion that he is in breach of at least two codes of conduct,” Guthrie wrote in her complaint.
Calhoun, who is vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the West Virginia University-Charleston Division, made the claims in a letter he wrote to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in June 2013. Morrisey campaigned for office on an anti-choice platform and is widely expected to push for restrictions on reproductive rights in the 2014 legislative session.
Guthrie’s complaint lays out two possible reasons to discipline Calhoun.
“As professor and Vice-Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at West Virginia University at the Charleston Area Medical Center, Dr. Calhoun must be aware that reports of incompetence or substandard care should be made to the appropriate clinical authority to assess the potential impact on patient welfare,” she wrote.
As first reported by RH Reality Check, Calhoun never reported any of the alleged injuries to the state medical board, despite both legal and ethical requirements to do so. Robert C. Knittle, the head of the medical board, told RH Reality Check that failure to comply with those rules can result in a physician facing disciplinary action.
Guthrie also raised an alternative reason for Calhoun’s failure to report the alleged injuries—that he lacked any evidence to support those claims.
“If upon your review you find Dr. Calhoun made knowingly false statements, I respectfully request the Board of Medicine to take swift action,” Guthrie wrote in her complaint, which is addressed to Knittle. “Given Dr. Calhoun’s position in teaching future physicians at West Virginia University and the impact his statements have made on matters of significant public importance in our state, your review is critical.”
In an interview with RH Reality Check, Guthrie made clear that Calhoun is not the only target of her anger over his remarks. West Virginia University is funded by the state, Guthrie said, and she noted that WVU’s budget comes before the state finance committee every year.
“I’m not sure that we should be providing state money to a university that allows for a physician to subject his students, or anybody that he serves, with his own narrow ideology,” said Guthrie, who is a member of the finance committee. “If Dr. Calhoun did breach his position, the question becomes whether my colleagues in the legislature want to make sure that WVU understands that doctors like that shouldn’t be allowed to practice, and to carry the WVU mantle.”
Calhoun did not respond to RH Reality Check’s request for comment by our publication deadline. The university did not immediately respond to our request for comments on Guthrie’s statements, but a spokesperson for West Virginia University Health Services earlier declined to comment about the possibility that Calhoun could face disciplinary actions for failing to report the alleged incidents, or for making unfounded allegations.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a voluntary membership organization, said that Calhoun has not faced any disciplinary action by that professional body, and remains in good standing.
The broader political context of Calhoun’s complaints is the nationwide push for tighter state laws on reproductive rights, and on access to abortion in particular.
Over the past year, an unprecedented number of bills passed in state houses around the country that shuttered clinics or required women to undergo medically unnecessary procedures in order to obtain an abortion.
West Virginians fear that their state will be next. When asked about her reasons for filing this complaint, Guthrie noted that her complaint should also send a message to Attorney General Morrisey.
“He shouldn’t be using his job to advance his own ideology,” she said. “His ideology is reckless and it is the war on women that we had been trying to avoid in the West Virginia legislature.”
“I think that Patrick Morrisey has gone over the line, and so has Calhoun. And I don’t want to go down that road,” she said.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, a nonprofit organization that promotes reproductive rights and justice, welcomed Guthrie’s move.
“We in the women’s health community value a woman’s health and safety, so it is important to get to the bottom of Dr. Calhoun’s claims,” Pomponio told RH Reality Check. “We are heartened that Delegate Guthrie has called for factually based accountability.”