NEW ORLEANS, LA — California doctor George Delgado doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose, but he does believe in a woman’s right to make a “second choice” to reverse her abortion.
The anti-choice family physician has become the most prominent name behind the “abortion pill reversal,” a technique he claims has helped more than 100 women undo their abortions. While the flawed science behind the procedure has been discredited by major gynecological groups and medical experts, Delgado’s practice is already influencing lawmakers in statehouses across the country — two states passed laws for the first time this year requiring doctors to inform patients that the option to reverse their abortions is available.
After he gave a presentation about his work to a captivated audience at the annual National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans last week, Delgado sat down with ThinkProgress in a hotel conference room and explained how it’s common for a women to immediately regret her decision to have a medical abortion — and that’s where his work comes in.
“When women do choose abortion, at least the ones we’ve been in contact with, they seem to have already a certain amount of ambivalence,” the soft-spoken doctor said. “Deep down in their hearts, they don’t want to have an abortion but they feel that it’s their only choice to resolve their situation. I think part of it is how we’re all hard-wired as human beings — we’re all hard-wired to protect our young and to nurture our young, and so when we go against that nature of how we’re hard-wired, then it’s very difficult for us. I think many of them do have a lot of ambivalence and second thoughts.”
We’re all hard-wired to protect our young and to nurture our young.
Delgado, a father of four and the medical director of Culture of Life Family Health Care in San Diego, said he was first contacted in 2009 about a woman wanting to reverse her medical abortion. Through a decade of delivering babies, Delgado had many times administered progesterone to women to prevent threats of a miscarriage. So, he reasoned, perhaps the drug could have the same effects and could reverse the effects of mifepristone, the first drug used in a medical abortion.
The woman in El Paso, Texas found a doctor willing to administer progesterone injections, and lo and behold, her abortion was “reversed,” Delgado said.
But what Delgado doesn’t mention is that mifepristone isn’t always effective in inducing a medical abortion on its own. Doctors administer mifepristone to block progesterone receptors and to promote contractions, and then a second drug, misoprostol, which causes the uterus to expel its contents. If a woman takes just the first drug, the chances of her abortion being successful are just around 60 percent, an abortion provider told RH Reality Check.
Nevertheless, other women heard about the “success,” Delgado said, and he began receiving more phone calls from people interested in reversing their abortions. He teamed up with Matthew Harrison, another physician who claimed to have performed the first reversal in 2007. “Before we knew it, we had several cases that had been successful,” he said.
By 2012, Delgado had six documented patients — four of whom continued their pregnancies — and decided it was time to share his findings. His article, published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, was immediately critiqued by the medical community.
David Grimes, the former chief of the abortion surveillance branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in RH Reality Check in April that the report “makes numerous scientific errors.” The progesterone regimen recommended has not been formally studied or vetted, Grimes said, and the evidence does not prove that progresterone caused any abortions to be “reversed.”
“The fact that a pregnancy continued after this treatment in no way implies a causal association,” Grimes said, adding that by the 1980s, the success rate of an abortion with just mifepristone was recognized as too low for general use.
Grimes also claims that because no control or comparison group was used and because the sample size was so tiny, the study is effectively useless. A study in France, however, followed women given only mifepristone and came up with a similar pregnancy continuation rate to the one Delgado claims he achieved.
But Delgado maintains that “it’s not junk science, it’s new science,” saying his updated research will appease skeptics who thought the sample size in his original study was too small. Since the last journal report was published, he said he has worked with roughly 200 women and has had a 55 to 60 percent success rate. He is currently in the process of preparing the next article which he hopes to publish by the end of September.
“You can see how a doctor who is skeptical or cautious would say ‘your original article only had six patients. That’s a very small number,’” he said. “When we present an article with about 200 patients, it’s going to be a much larger article and it’s going to be more meaningful to them and I think it’ll cause people to really pay attention.”
Any woman who takes mifepristone has a right to know there is a possibility of reversal.
One of those skeptical doctors is former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a staunch pro-life Republican presidential candidate. Carson told ThinkProgress that “the scientific method requires accumulating data, accumulating evidence and making sure that it’s statistically significant.”
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, Delgado maintains that the procedure is safe, effective and does not produce birth defects.
And while the Right to Life audience was eager at the thought of spreading the news of the “reversal” option across the country, there’s no evidence of a demand by abortion-regretting women to reverse the process. In fact, a recent study showed that more than 95 percent of women did not regret their abortion and feelings of relief outweighed any negative emotions. But for those who Delgado claims are “hard-wired” to nurture their young, his website offers a telephone number to call for help.
“We know that an unplanned pregnancy can be scary and many women make decisions to abort their babies when they are terrified and stressed,” the website says. “We know that after some time thinking about it, many women would like to change their minds about a CHEMICAL ABORTION. IT MAY NOT BE TOO LATE, IF YOU CALL QUICKLY.”
Pro-life groups across the country have quickly taken hold of the new “science.” A clinic in Iowa has started offering abortion “reversals” and Priests for Life, a religious anti-choice group, is advocating for abortion pill reversal kits to be available in emergency rooms and urgent care clinics across the country.
And Delgado’s one flawed study has found a larger platform for the first time this year. Both Arizona and Arkansas recently passed legislation that would require doctors to inform patients about the option. Arizona’s law is currently being challenged in court on First Amendment grounds, with Planned Parenthood of Arizona and other organizations arguing that it forces doctors to lie to their patients. The law was scheduled to take effect this month before the court put it on hold.
Delgado said he believes every woman should be informed of the “reversal” option, but as a “states’ rights person,” he said each state should decide whether it’s an issue to legislate.
“My feeling is that any woman who takes mifepristone has a right to know there is a possibility of reversal,” he said. “That’s the most important thing — for them to have that information. However they get that information, it’s probably up to each state to decide if it should just be an educational effort or whatever it takes… They have a right to know that there is a possibility of reversal, that it’s been successful nearly 200 times and that it’s safe and effective.”