In Tampa abortion pill case, judge weighs battle of experts

TAMPA — "Hey! Hey, I'm here! Support me."

That's the signal Remee Jo Lee's embryo was sending to her ovaries a day before her miscarriage became apparent last spring, a medical expert testified Wednesday, characterizing the chemical communication as a sign of viability.

Lee's pregnancy hormone levels were normal. The ovaries had marshaled progesterone to line the uterus with blood vessels and capillaries to sustain life.

Her risk of spontaneous miscarriage? Less than 1 percent, said the expert, Dr. Catherine Lynch, testifying during the sentencing phase of a federal criminal case against John Andrew Welden, 29, of Lutz.

She pointed instead to the drug, misoprostol, that Welden has admitted giving to Lee disguised as a common antibiotic. Misoprostol, sold under the brand name Cytotec, treats ulcers. But in off-label applications, it is also widely used in abortions.

Welden is in federal court in Tampa for a two-day evidentiary hearing convened by U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara.

Welden previously pleaded guilty to product tampering and mail fraud. Attorneys for both sides jointly recommended a sentence of 13 years and 8 months.

But Lazzara has the final say. And last month, he expressed a desire to hear more testimony to counter early defense assertions that the dose Lee took — 200 micrograms — wasn't enough to cause her miscarriage.

The defense has suggested that the pregnancy may have failed on its own.

Prosecutor Stephen Muldrow put on two expert witnesses Wednesday. Defense attorney Todd Foster has three planned for today.

Clinical pharmacologist Daniel Buffingon testified that the way Lee, 27, also of Lutz, took the drug — under her tongue, as instructed by Welden — would have delivered an especially potent dose, contributing to or causing her miscarriage.

Lynch, wife of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, is an educator and medical doctor with a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology. She is vice president for women's health at USF Health.

She testified that 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage but said Lee's young age, hormone levels and undilated cervix, along with the embryo's stage and heartbeat, suggested a healthy pregnancy with an "exceedingly low" chance of spontaneous miscarriage.

With Lee's sonogram enlarged on the courtroom video monitors, Lynch pointed out the "nice circular" yolk sac, the lack of a floppy curtain appearance that might have suggested instability.

She speculated that the dose was strong enough to dislodge the implanted embryo from the uterine wall, but perhaps not strong enough to expel it from the uterus.

The lifeless embryo, nearly 7 weeks old, was removed surgically.

"Once it's dislodged, the embryo can't survive," Lynch said. "This is a very low dose. That's why it didn't evacuate out. That doesn't mean it can't cause the demise of the embryo."

Testimony resumes today.

Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or pryan@tampabay.com.

In Tampa abortion pill case, judge weighs battle of experts 01/08/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 11:56pm]

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