Dr. George Delgado, the man best known for claiming women could reverse their abortions, has now set his sights on a new mission that is just as scientifically dubious: helping churches fight public health restrictions during a global pandemic.
Delgado, a 58-year-old family medicine physician from San Diego, California, became a hero of the anti-abortion movement for inventing a protocol he calls “abortion pill reversal.” The procedure is meant to stop the effects of a medication abortion midway through, by giving the patient an injection of progesterone after they take the first of two pills that trigger a medication abortion. It is a tantalizing idea for religious conservatives, who have spent years fighting the rise of inexpensive, readily available abortion pills—but one that is almost entirely unproven.
The only studies on abortion reversal have been conducted by Delgado himself, and they have been criticized in some of the medical industry’s most prominent journals. The American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians clearly states that there is “no evidence that treatment with progesterone after taking mifepristone increases the likelihood of the pregnancy continuing.” The only third-party study on the procedure was stopped early because three of the 12 participants had to be rushed to the hospital. (Delgado claims this actually supports the safety of his procedure, because two of the hospitalized women were in the placebo group. The study’s authors disagree.)
But scientific accuracy does not seem to be Delgado’s chief priority. This spring, as coronavirus deaths passed 270,000 worldwide, Delgado agreed to work as an expert witness for churches that wanted to fill their chapels and couples who wanted to be wedded indoors. Now, he is writing for a website called “Covid Planning Tools,” which pushes the dubious notion that Americans should strive for herd immunity, rather than flattening the pandemic's curve.
Delgado has no public health certification, and his only hospital affiliation is with his own private clinic, unsubtly named Culture of Life Family Services. (The University of California, San Diego, where Delgado briefly taught classes until 2011, asked him to remove his affiliation with them from papers as recently as 2018.) In legal filings, he lists his qualifications as a physician who has “treated many people with infectious diseases, including viral illnesses such as influenza, which tend to occur in epidemics.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Delgado defended his approach as the only sensible way to manage a pandemic that is reaching record daily highs.
“Overall, I would say that approach is a prudent, practical approach to protect the vulnerable and the elderly from serious illness and from death, at the same time avoiding the collateral damage that has been inflicted by the policies instituted up until now by several states,” he said.
The doctor’s first foray into pandemic litigation was with South Bay United Pentecostal Church, a mid-sized church in Chula Vista, California, that is challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions on indoor services for over 100 people. In a court filing issued in May—one day after experts said case counts in the state were rising faster than expected—Delgado claimed that the curve in California had flattened and that extreme mitigation measures were no longer necessary. If proper health procedures were followed, he claimed, going to large church services was safer than going to the grocery store.
In August, Delgado popped up again in a lawsuit in upstate New York, where he defended two couples who wanted to have large, indoor weddings in defiance of the state’s ban. (That same month, an even smaller wedding took place in Maine that would lead to 170 COVID cases and seven deaths.) Borrowing some of the exact wording from his South Bay declaration, Delgado claimed that the limitations on these large gatherings were the true public health threat, because of the damage they could cause to participants’ “social, spiritual, psychological and physical dimensions.”
“Limiting the size of weddings to 50 attendees also carries with it certain profound spiritual and psychological risks that, ironically, could actually lead to an increase in mortality from COVID-19 by negatively impacting immune function and by destabilizing the family support systems on which all New Yorkers depend,” Delgado wrote. “The family is a building block of society and a wedding is a landmark event in the life of a young family. It is an important mechanism by which a new generation establishes itself.”
Dr. William Haseltine, a former Harvard professor and pioneer in HIV/AIDS research, denounced these claims as “completely bogus.”
“He has no ... idea what the spiritual cost is,” Haseltine said. “To me, the spiritual harm is having your friends and family die.”
“Having your mother die is going to be spiritually beneficial to you? Having your child hospitalized and maybe die is spiritually beneficial for you?” he added. “I don’t think so.”
Delgado’s largest client by far is Grace Community Church, an evangelical mega-church in Los Angeles that has continued to host 7,000-person church services in violation of a court order. According to the Los Angeles Times, Grace Community attendees rarely wear masks and frequently flout social distancing guidelines. In an interview with Fox News, Pastor John McArthur bragged that the church was “literally flooded with people,” with congregants “jammed together” in every nook and corner.
In August, the church sued Newsom for alleged discrimination by allowing Black Lives Matter protests to take place while putting restrictions on church services. When a county health inspector attempted to survey the church that month, the Times reported, a security guard told him he could not enter because they were having a “Jesus Life Matters protest.”
Delgado claims he is defending these churches because of his belief in their First Amendment rights; outraged by the fact that they are facing restrictions when places like liquor stores and pot shops are not. (This despite the fact that numerous other businesses, from restaurants to bowling alleys, have been ordered to reduce their capacities or shut down entirely.) But he refused to condemn Grace Church for not following the same, sensible public health guidelines that all of these other businesses are required to follow, and that he himself recommends.
“The pastor at Grace Church is allowing the members of his congregation to decide if they want to be there,” he said. “He's offering religious services as he sees fit in order to worship properly in the context of that church."
At the same time, Delgado has started publishing articles on “Covid Planning Tools,” a website that offers “analysis and insight for effective policy management.” None of the company’s other three authors are public health or policy experts; they include Dr. John Safranek, an emergency medicine specialist in Columbus, Nebraska, and author of “The Myth of Liberalism,” and a Johns Hopkins economist named Richard Spady. The fourth employee—the architect of the “sophisticated tool” the group uses to make its predictions—is Bill Goyette, a former aerospace engineer who also happens to be chairman of the board of Delgado’s clinic and a fellow at his research organization.
Among the claims on the site are that mask mandates have “little effect on the spread of the virus,” (the CDC says otherwise,) that protests over the summer led to a spike in coronavirus cases (the data on this is sparse, at best,) and that New York City should follow the Swedish model of implementing few restrictions on activities during the pandemic. (Researchers have determined that Sweden was one of only two countries, the other being the U.S., that failed to rapidly reduce its mortality numbers as the pandemic progressed.)
One post, authored by Delgado himself, argues that “policymakers should tolerate the spread of the virus—as long as the hospital system is not overwhelmed.” Increased infections, as long as they do not involve the elderly or medically vulnerable, are “an unavoidable path to herd immunity,” he wrote.
Covid Planning Tools did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent through its marketing manager, Joe Koller. But Koller did clarify that the views expressed on the page were not his own, and added a statement to the company website saying as much after being contacted by The Daily Beast.
Several public health experts told The Daily Beast the ideas espoused on the site were misguided, if not impossible. Isolating all “vulnerable” populations, they said, would be extremely difficult in an area with high community spread. (Delgado responded that he takes care of “a lot of elderly patients who are staying home staying away from things, and are being very, very safe.”) Even harder would be determining what constitutes a vulnerable population to begin with, since the virus has left even young, seemingly healthy people struggling with long-term health effects.
And attempting to reach herd immunity, Haseltine said, would mean tolerating between 2 and 6 million American deaths across this past year and the next 12 months.
“Is that what they want?” he asked. “I call that the equivalent of mass murder.”
Delgado is not the only person claiming to be pro-life while pushing potentially deadly policies. CareNet, the largest network of “crisis pregnancy centers” in the country, proceeded with its in-person conference in Orlando in September—masks not required. (Crisis pregnancy centers are clinics or counseling centers that discourage women from getting abortions. They also happen to be the largest providers of abortion pill reversals.) Pro-life Wisconsin, the largest anti-abortion group in the state, recently sued over pandemic restrictions that prevented it from having large fundraisers.
Dr. Daniel Grossman, an OB-GYN in California and author of one of the papers critiquing Delgado’s research, said he was unsurprised to learn that Delgado had joined the ranks of anti-abortion advocates calling for bodily autonomy—in the case of church attendance, if not reproduction. But he added that he was surprised that anyone would listen to him, given that he is not an epidemiologist or public health expert. “I find that very concerning that he would be seen as a credible voice,” Grossman said.
Delgado, meanwhile, defended his work as a protection of the psychological, spiritual, and economic health of the nation, as well as a defense of Constitutional religious rights.
“It is a false assumption that [church services] are high-risk, that they have produced a lot of cases of COVID-19. The evidence is just not there,” he said, claiming that articles like a New York Times investigation that found 650 cases of the coronavirus tied to religious institutions in July contained “great exaggerations.”
“To severely restrict something that is protected by the First Amendment when the evidence is not there that spread is occurring there—it is a gross exaggeration, and it’s a trampling of Constitutional rights,” he said.
The true exaggerations, however, may be Delgado’s. In May, the Supreme Court declined to hear South Bay Pentecostal Church’s case, writing that California’s restrictions on religious worship “appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
In October, Grace Community Church experienced its first outbreak of three coronavirus cases. Three days later, the parishioners were back in their pews, maskless, waiting to be saved.