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Experts use evidence in abortion pill case to reach opposing opinions

TAMPA — For two days, lawyers grilled scientists at a court hearing to explore whether a single abortion pill caused John Andrew Welden's former romantic partner to lose her pregnancy.

On Wednesday, two experts for the government leaned toward yes.

Thursday, three experts for the defense leaned toward no.

Why such contradiction?

"The law is asking a question that medicine can't answer," testified Beverly Winikoff, who has spent decades investigating abortion drugs and consults for the World Health Organization.

But Winikoff, a medical doctor and professor of clinical population and reproductive health at Columbia University, sided Thursday with the defense, discounting the theory that a 200-microgram dose of the drug misoprostol terminated Remee Jo Lee's nearly 7-week pregnancy last spring

"I'm sure it could happen, but it's not likely," Winikoff said.

Lee more likely suffered a spontaneous abortion caused by a chromosomal abnormality — an accident of how cells divide — that is a common cause of miscarriages at that gestational period, the doctor said.

Another medical doctor, Catherine Lynch of USF Health, had testified Wednesday that chromosomal analysis, called karyotype testing, could not be done on Lee's embryo because it was preserved in formaldehyde, which makes it impossible to regrow cells.

In her testimony, she estimated that Lee had a less than 1 percent chance of a miscarriage from natural causes, based in part on pregnancy hormone levels, and opined that the drug had served its intended purpose.

Doctors testifying Thursday used the same hormone levels for the defense.

When misoprostol is used in miscarriage, the pregnancy hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) drops quickly, Winikoff said.

"The hCG drops like a stone," she said. "Within 24 hours, it's almost gone."

She said Lee's levels appeared to drop slowly, more consistent with a miscarriage from natural causes, and she speculated that Lee might already have been in trouble when she took the pill.

Welden, 29, of Lutz pleaded guilty to product tampering and mail fraud after prosecutors say he tricked Lee into thinking the drug was an antibiotic.

He faces up to 15 years in prison. In September, attorneys brought a plea agreement to U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara that recommended a term of 13 years and eight months.

Attorneys are supposed to make final arguments in the evidentiary hearing today, with sentencing at a later date.

It looked Thursday as if Lee, 27, also of Lutz, might testify.

Those plans were canceled without explanation after Lazzara and attorneys conferred in private. She still could speak later at the sentencing.

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

Experts use evidence in abortion pill case to reach opposing opinions 01/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 9, 2014 10:22pm]
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