Partisan Infection Strikes Medical Coverage

News that the FDA and the CDC will next convene a "scientific meeting" to discuss the deaths of four California women who died several days after taking Mifeprex gets buried by partisan "he said / she said."

What’s news: early next year the FDA and the CDC will next convene a “scientific meeting” to discuss the “medical mystery” surrounding the deaths of four California women, each who died several days after taking Mifeprex (aka, RU-486 or the “abortion pill”) and each who appears to have suffered from “a rare and highly lethal bacterial infection.” So reports the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris today.

What’s not news: what someone from an organization with a mission to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy” thinks about all of this. What’s also not news: what someone from an organization committed to “the fundamental right of each individual … to manage his or her own fertility” thinks about all of this.

Things look good for the first twenty paragraphs of Harris’ piece. Readers get the who, what, when and why, and a doctor/spokesperson for the manufacturer of Mifeprex declines Harris’ invitation to speculate about “what is going on regarding these rare and really serious … infections,” telling Harris, “I don’t have an answer for you, and because of that I don’t have any running theories.”

Unfortunately, in the fifth-to-last paragraph, Wendy Wright weighs in (as she has in so many media reports on issues ranging from RU-486 to Terry Schiavo) to proclaim Mifeprex “unsafe” (looks like the FDA and CDC can go ahead and cancel their “scientific meeting,” then). Harris doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s reporting speculation, writing that Wright, of Concerned Women for America, “also speculated that more women were dying after using the drug but that their deaths were going unreported” (emphasis added), something which itself should have gone unreported.

But if you’re going to include in an article on a life-and-death medical matter wild speculation from a partisan with no medical training, you must — any White House reporter can tell you how this works — also include wild speculation from an untrained partisan from the other side of the debate. (Alas, Harris has a history of quoting partisans speculating and pontificating in abortion-related articles.)

Seems Harris could only come up with a pro-choice partisan with a medical degree, Dr. Scott J. Spear, the chairman of Planned Parenthood’s national medical committee. Says Dr. Spear, “I think it’s dangerous to speculate in the absence of good data,” but only after offering something that sounds suspiciously speculative — “[The deaths are] all in California, so is this a local issue?”

Doctor, heal thyself! And while you’re at it, see if you can help a reporter mend his ways.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.