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REVERSE COURSE: Cynthia Galvan (left) with her son and boyfriend.
Wally Nell/Genesis
REVERSE COURSE: Cynthia Galvan (left) with her son and boyfriend.

Cynthia's choice

Abortion | Meet one of the first women ever to undo her medical abortion—and the doctor who made it possible

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

Nineteen years old and pregnant, Cynthia Galvan had an abortion pill in her mouth and turmoil in her soul. She was unmarried and felt unprepared for motherhood.

A medical abortion was the solution. The day before Galvan had ingested the first drug in the RU-486 regimen, mifepristone, intended to detach the embryo from the uterus. Now she was taking a misoprostol pill, which would cause her body to expel the baby.

Yet she doubted. Her mother was in tears over her decision, and a local pro-life doctor told Galvan over the phone he might be able to reverse the effects of the prior day’s pill.

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A call to Planned Parenthood’s staff suggested the opposite: The baby was already dead, they assured her—or if not, it would be born with major birth defects. They warned that unless she took the second drug to expel the pregnancy now, she could experience severe pain.

Galvan spit the pill out, unsure who to believe.

At the time, the doctor she had spoken to, George Delgado, was one of the only people in the world who could have helped her. Delgado is the medical director of Culture of Life Family Services, a Catholic family healthcare clinic and crisis pregnancy center in San Diego. One of the world’s few doctors with experience reversing a medical abortion, Delgado uses injections of the pregnancy hormone progesterone as an antidote to the mifepristone abortion drug. Today he’s building a network of pro-life doctors willing to perform this novel abortion reversal technique for women who second-guess their decision to take RU-486.

When Delgado talked to Galvan over the phone, however, there was no network. Nor was there any established medical procedure for reversing an abortion pill, although some doctors had likely tried it. Delgado himself had never attempted the treatment, though he had been an advisor for a Texas patient who had asked for a reversal. It remained an experimental procedure, and he couldn’t guarantee success.

Galvan—if she was willing to try it—would be a test case. If the treatment worked, it would have major implications for other women in her shoes.

Delgado learned about Galvan’s crisis from a local priest. (Galvan’s Catholic mother, distraught over the abortion, had gone to confession that morning and unloaded her conscience to the priest, who knew Delgado and called him.) The doctor called the young woman and invited her to get an immediate ultrasound at his clinic, just 20 minutes away. 

Galvan hesitated. Inside, she told herself the treatment wouldn’t work because her baby was already dead. “I felt like I didn’t have the option, because I had already taken the first pill,” she recalls.

With her mother begging and her boyfriend prodding, she reluctantly agreed to meet Delgado and his wife at the clinic. There, Delgado used an ultrasound to see if the baby was still alive. As he later admitted to me, he wasn’t sure what he would find—it had been as many as 40 hours since Galvan had taken mifepristone. 

But what Galvan saw on the ultrasound screen was a flicker of light—the heartbeat of an 8-week-old baby in her womb. “I was just shocked and I couldn’t believe it. … I just expected the baby to not be alive.” Her boyfriend, Jyale Michel, saw it too, and his eyes glistened.

Galvan told the doctor yes. That day Delgado’s wife gave Galvan her first shot—a 200 milligram dose of progesterone, the pregnancy hormone.

Progesterone is naturally produced in a woman’s body, and levels are especially high during pregnancy to support the developing fetus. Delgado’s experience using progesterone grew out of his training in NaProTechnology (natural procreative technology), an approach to fertility treatment that conforms to Roman Catholic teaching. Promoted by the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., NaProTechnology uses progesterone replacement injections to increase fertility and reduce miscarriage.

The progesterone injections became a regular routine for Galvan, along with ultrasounds to check the baby’s status. She drove to the clinic every other day for shots, and twice a week later on. Delgado’s theory was that by flooding Galvan’s body with progesterone, he could reverse any damage that might have occurred to her placenta.

The abortion drug Galvan had ingested, mifepristone, works by blocking natural progesterone. “When you don’t have the progesterone effect, the placenta and the embryo dies, and you have a medical abortion,” Delgado explains. In essence, mifepristone starves the baby of nutrition and oxygen.

The frequent injections were intended to overwhelm the abortion drug. If progesterone and mifepristone were soldiers in a battle, Delgado’s strategy was to win by superior numbers. Since the treatment had never been studied, his challenge was to figure out “how many soldiers I needed to recruit.”

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