What We Know About Byron Calhoun: West Virginia's Only High-Risk OB Who Says Abortion Is 'Never Necessary'
One of the most impactful lessons of the monster that has been the Covid-19 pandemic is this: we need good doctors, nurses, and medical professionals. We need to listen to them, trust them, and support them. But also, when we come across those few whackadoos who sully the oath and the promise that med students make when they enter the field, we need to call them out and ensure that they don’t do more harm.
Sadly, there have ben a few anti-mask/anti-vax “doctors” (use of air quotes essential here, because AYFKM?) who have made news for horrid reasons like falsifying vaccine cards, spewing falsehoods about vaccines, and refusing to wear masks or mandate masks in their offices. Thankfully, these unstable and unsafe practices are rare, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.
And it’s not just in this new Covid world that we, on occasion, come across back-asswards “doctors” who have gone to the dark side and drag their patients down with them. It’s also an issue in women’s health—namely prenatal OB/GYN care—that we might see medical professionals so entrenched in their anti-abortion views that they no longer provide the “standard of care” required by doctors in this country.
Byron Calhoun of Charleston, West Virginia is one such piranha in the medical field, and he’s dangerously affecting pregnant women’s ability to receive fair, honest, unbiased medical care throughout central West Virginia.
“Byron Calhoun says abortion is never necessary to save a mother’s life. He also the only high-risk OB/GYN in central West Virginia,” an article on The Lily, a sub-publication of The Washington Post, boldly states in its attention-grabbing opening.
Furthermore, and not at all surprisingly, The Lily goes on to report that “at a 2019 antiabortion conference in Ontario, Canada, Byron Calhoun was introduced as a ‘messenger of God.'”
Because of course he was. Of. Fucking. Course. Gotta love when conservative Christians use that convenient veil of the Bible to justify their oppression of women!
(And also super fun when people who’ve never had a uterus want to tell those of who do what we can and cannot do with it.)
Also, just to cover all this bizarre “WTF is happening” nonsense at once, The Lily also reports that this “messenger of God” stood up on stage and compared himself to Queen Esther, a biblical figure known for saving her people from genocide. Because that’s apparently what this nutcase says he is doing—rather than providing necessary medical counseling and treatment to women faced with a high-risk pregnancy, he’s doing what he refers to as “unpleasant business,” saying he’s simply “called” to “fight for the lives of the unborn.”
Oh, you felt a “calling?” Cool, but that’s how religious figures behave, not doctors who take an oath to provide proper medical care and guidance. The fact that this guy is using his medical license and power within the obstetrics field—particularly as the lone OB/GYN of his kind in the area—to push his religious agenda that he’s “called” to serve—is terrifying and problematic AF. And he needs to be stopped. Especially because you know that Tucker Carlson and every other morally devoid right-wing talking head is going to latch on the unsubstantiated rants of this one whack-job and ignore like pretty much every other OB/GYN or doctor in women’s health who are calling out his bullshit.
Speaking of other doctors … thankfully other OB/GYNs who aren’t specialists in high-risk pregnancy, but who might have patients who need to see such a specialist, are actively avoiding sending their patients to Dr. Calhoun because of his reputation. Unfortunately, however, that means women who opt out of seeing Dr. Calhoun must be willing and able to travel well outside of the Charleston, West Virginia area—an option not all women have.
So just how bad is this douchecanoe? Well, for example, The Lily says that Dr. Calhoun found himself the subject of a lawsuit in 2016 that accused him of being unwilling to perform an amniocentesis—the most definitive form of fetal genetic testing—to a patient who requested the procedure. Furthermore, the tests he did perform for this patient conveniently were “not conclusive” and came back past the date that allowed for an elective abortion. Basically, Dr. Calhoun prevented this patient from making a choice they are legally allowed to make, and have the right to make, about their own body and pregnancy.
He’s not secretive about it, either, openly saying he doesn’t perform abortions and if women want to go that route, “the yellow pages are available.”
And, there are stories like that of Hayley Smelcer, a former patient of Dr. Calhoun’s, who had a high-risk pregnancy. Hayley’s unborn baby had been diagnosed with holoprosencephaly, a disorder in which the right and left sides of a baby’s brain are fused together—a condition that is fatal, and a diagnosis that means the child would likely not survive a full-term pregnancy.
But Dr. Calhoun’s response to this diagnosis was … well, odd to say the least. And possibly unethical. “I don’t play God,” he told Hayley. “I’m going to fight for this baby.”
(Yep, that same doctor who was introduced as a “messenger from God” who compared himself to Esther from the Bible is also saying “I don’t play God” and is going to fight to keep a baby alive who is likely suffering and has zero chance of survival. Hmmm.)
Dr. Calhoun told Hayley and her husband Donnie that he would “line up a team of specialists at a major research hospital in Cincinnati, a five-hour drive from where they live in Rainelle, W.Va.” And, he added, “If Hayley, who was relying on Medicaid for insurance, went into early labor, Calhoun said he would charter a helicopter to get her there.”
Only when Hayley did go into labor, no helicopter came. The doctors at the hospital she went to said that due to a storm and the fact that the baby was so sick, a helicopter ride to another hospital wasn’t an option. The baby lived for 20 hours and died from cardiac arrest.
This false sense of hope planted inside emotional, fragile mothers with terminally ill children is heinous and cruel. And it’s not exclusive to Hayley Smelcer either. It happened to Brooklynn Stalnaker, a pregnant high school senior, as well. Tragically, Stalnaker found out at 20 weeks gestation that her baby had polycystic kidney disease, which meant they would be born without working kidneys and without developed lungs.
The Lily reports that Stalnaker knew the entire pregnancy that her child would not survive, but that her family hung on the false hope Dr. Calhoun provided and pushed her to continue—even so far as to set up her house with a bassinet, diapers, lotions, do a maternity photo shoot, and install a carseat in her car to bring the baby home in.
Even worse, Dr. Calhoun told the teenager that carrying the baby to term caused zero risk to her health (which multiple experts have refuted) and that she’d have to have a C-section (which, again, multiple experts have said was not only unnecessary, but also put Stalnaker’s life and health at risk).
Like seriously, what is this guy even talking about? Does he make up shit as he goes along?
Sadly, but as expected, Brooklynn Stalnaker’s baby died two hours after she was born.
And the disturbing stories about Dr. Calhoun don’t end there, either. Many women who’ve seen him describe his care as very loving and nurturing—most of them report receiving flowers after birth, saying that no other doctor has ever done things like that.
This “doctor” intentionally misleads women and spews absurdly false and dangerous information like saying that a woman is “more likely to die in the surgery for the abortion” than she is with a high-risk pregnancy (which again, is completely false). But he prays upon women, sending them flowers, creating the illusion that he cares for their well-being.
This quack is the absolute worst of the worst and is an insult and a danger to the OB/GYN profession.
And to clarify, did Hayley Smelcer or Brooklynn Stalnaker do anything wrong carrying their babies to term? Did they make the wrong choice? Absolutely not. As mothers, they had (and continue to have) the right to make whatever choice they deem best for their own situations.
But therein lies the issue—they were not properly counseled on all their options. And when women don’t have all the information, or are intentionally misled by corrupt doctors, it can be dangerous—deadly even.
For example, The Lily asked Mary Norton, the division chief of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, the top OB/GYN department in the country, to comment on the way Dr. Calhoun “cares” for his patients, and, not surprisingly, Dr. Norton doesn’t have kind things to say.
It’s “ridiculous,” she said, in response to how Dr. Calhoun promised a helicopter transport to Hayley Smelcer when there were no known treatments that could improve the baby’s condition. That’s not what a good doctor does—especially one claiming that he’s “not playing God.”
Dr. Norton herself has treated many patients “with medical conditions that require abortion,” she says. “While doctors should generally remain neutral in consultations about the future of a pregnancy,” Norton said, “they must make an exception for patients with certain health conditions, like severe cases of pulmonary hypertension or heart disease. If patients do not opt for an abortion in these situations, studies show, they can die.”
And she goes on to share that in one case, she recommended termination to a patient with health risks. That patient decided to continue her pregnancy anyway and died just after the delivery.
There are other horror stories about Dr. Calhoun too, like how he manifested a tale about a fetus skull being left inside a woman’s uterus after an abortion (the lawsuit was thrown out of court because it was untrue and baseless). Or how he travels the country giving PowerPoint presentations that spread blatant lies, like “abortion has been linked to breast cancer, sleep disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, ‘death by violent causes,’ and a variety of mental health disorders.”
(American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists representative Kate Connors says that these kinds of statements are not only entirely false, but also spread “fear and stigma” around abortion.)
He’s also falsely accused West Virginia clinics of providing “substandard care,” and has claimed that he saw post-abortive patients with complications “probably at least weekly.” (The hospital he’s affiliated with has disproved this assertion with reputable data.)
It gets worse. You know the fear of “indoctrination” conservatives always talk about when it comes to these “crazy libs teaching our kids”? Well, here’s an actual example of it.
The Lily also reports that Byron Calhoun teaches and oversees dozens of residents at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. And when asked at that conference in Ontario if his anti-abortion lecture material was part of his med school curriculum, this asshole didn’t even try to hide it. “I teach them this stuff all the time,” he said.
Horrific. Beyond unethical.
“The footprint he’s leaving is so much bigger because he’s making an impression on kids who are in medical school and residency when they’re learning about these things,” says Dr. Lori Tucker, an OB/GYN in Martinsburg, WV.
A footprint that needs to be stamped out immediately as future generations of OB/GYNs continue to find themselves under the influence of this monster.
And it’s not like many haven’t tried, either. In 2015, The Charleston Gazette-Mail published an article entitled “WV Free director: ‘Calhoun is ruthless.'” The article published a letter written from Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV FREE, which is West Virginia’s largest reproductive-health-advocacy organization. She calls for his termination, asserting, “Calhoun is on a crusade. He is ruthless and has demonstrated he will lie, connive and manipulate to serve what he believes is a higher calling.”
And, she adds, “His crusade has made him a threat to public health in the Kanawha Valley.”
In addition, women’s rights activists say he’s on a mission to close the Women’s Health Center—the LAST clinic that performs abortions in the state. So not only is he making sure women can’t get abortions in his office, he’s trying to make sure that women can’t receive the proper healthcare they deserve in any office in the state of West Virginia.
Unfortunately, Margaret Chapman Pomponio’s letter didn’t result in Dr. Calhoun’s termination, as he’s still practicing, still denying a proper “standard of care” to women with high-risk pregnancies, as he is mandated to do by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to which he belongs.
And he’s still warping the minds of impressionable medical students and indoctrinating him with his extremely biased, sexist, antiquated views that deny basic human rights to women.
In short, Dr. Byron Calhoun is toxic, damaging to the OB/GYN profession, harmful to women in need of sound medical care, and he’s got to go.