The Columbia University “Miracle” Study: A Sign From God? Bruce L. Flamm MD

By Bruce L. Flamm, M.D.


Bruce L. Flamm, M.D.

On October 2, 2001, the New York Times reported that researchers at prestigious Columbia University Medical Center in New York had discovered something astounding. Using virtually foolproof scientific methods doctors had demonstrated that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them.

According to news reports, even the researchers were shocked. The study’s results could only be described as miraculous. The United States had just been rocked by perhaps the most horrific event in its history, so this apparent “sign from God” was undoubtedly welcome news for millions of shaken believers. Newspapers weren’t the only media that spread the good news. Internet stories spread around the world, and ABC News medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson interviewed the study’s lead author on the nationally telecast “Good Morning America” show.

Dr. Johnson, a medical doctor who also just happens to be an evangelical minister at the Evangelical Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass., reported that, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results.”

But was this really a sign from God? Or was it a just bunch of hooey? Consider the following facts and reach your own conclusion.

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is the most advanced form of infertility treatment currently available for women with severe infertility. Hence, any technique that could increase the success rate of IVF by even a few percent would be a medical breakthrough. Yet, the Columbia University study claimed to have demonstrated, in a carefully designed scientific study, that distant prayer by anonymous prayer groups increased the success rate of IVF by an astounding 100%.

The “miracle” study involved about 200 infertility patients in Seoul, South Korea. Half the patients received prayer and half did not. IVF was performed in the usual fashion in both groups. The patients in the prayer group were not informed that Christian groups in the United States, Canada, and Australia were praying for them. The prayer groups, thousands of miles away from the study subjects, apparently prayed over photographs that had been faxed from Korea. The study claimed that the pregnancy rate in the prayed-for group was almost twice as high as the pregnancy rate in the nonprayed-for group. It seemed that a miracle had occurred.

A press release on the Columbia University Internet site claimed that the study had several safeguards in place to eliminate bias and that the study itself was carefully designed to eliminate bias. However, even a cursory review of the report reveals many flaws. For example, the study protocol was convoluted and mysterious. A simple protocol could have been used to determine if prayer was effective in increasing the success rate of IVF. In fact, a high school student could have designed a better study. One might simply instruct one or two believers to pray for successful IVF in the study group while no one prayed for patients in the control group. With distant prayer, patients would not know if they were being prayed for or not, so there would be no intent or placebo bias. In contrast, the Columbia study involved at least three levels of overlapping and intertwining prayer groups with people praying for all sorts of different things. For example, some prayed to increase the effectiveness of other people’s prayers and some prayed that, ‘the will of God be done,’ whatever that means. Since the Catholic Church insists that IVF is evil, one would suspect that God would want no part of this sinful study. But perhaps the Evangelicals understand “God’s will” better than the Catholics do.

In any case, soon after the study was published, many doctors, including myself, began to ask questions. Strangely, there were no answers. The authors of the study were Kwang Cha, Rogerio Lobo, and Daniel Wirth. Dr. Cha was director of the Cha-Columbia Infertility Center, but soon after the “miracle” study was published he left or perhaps was asked to leave the University. For two years, Dr. Cha has refused to return phone calls or emails about the study. Dr. Rogerio Lobo was chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. But soon after the “miracle” study was published he stepped down from that position. For two years Dr. Lobo also refused to return phone calls or emails about the study.

The remaining author is a mysterious individual known as Daniel Wirth. Wirth is not a doctor, but holds an MS degree in the dubious field of “parapsychology” and also has a law degree. In October 2002, one year after the “miracle” study was published, Wirth, along with his former research associate, Joseph Horvath, also known as Joseph Hessler, was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Both men were charged with bilking the troubled cable television provider Adelphia Communications Corporation out of $2.1 million by infiltrating the company, then having it pay for unauthorized consulting work. Police investigators discovered that Wirth is also known as John Wayne Truelove. FBI investigators revealed that Wirth first used the name of Truelove, a New York child who died at age five in 1959, to obtain a passport in the mid-1980s. Wirth and his accomplice were charged with 13 counts of mail fraud, 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money, making false statements on loan applications and five other counts of fraud. The federal grand jury concluded that the relationship between Wirth and Horvath extended back more than 20 years and involved more than $3.4 million in income and property obtained by using the names of children who died more than 40 years ago.

But the Adelphia scheme was only part of the criminal story. Wirth apparently also found a way to defraud the federal government by collecting social security benefits totaling approximately $103,178.00 from 1994 to 2003 in the name of Julius Wirth. This man, possibly Daniel Wirth’s father, had died in 1994, but his benefits continued to be paid after his death via electronic funds transferred to the Republic National Bank. While Wirth was defrauding the federal government in his criminal career, his paranormal research career was flourishing. Between 1994 and 1997, Wirth’s most prolific period, he published a dozen research papers.

Incredibly, at the time of the indictment, Horvath was already in jail, charged with arson for burning down his Pennsylvania house to collect insurance money. The FBI investigation revealed that Horvath had previously gone to prison after being convicted in a 1990 embezzlement and false identity case in California. Interestingly, the investigation also revealed that he had also once been arrested for posing as a doctor in California..

Both Wirth and Horvath initially pleaded innocent to the felony charges and over the next 18 months their trial was delayed six times. On May 18, 2004, just as the criminal trial of the United States v. Wirth & Horvath was finally about to begin, both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. On July 13, 2004, Joseph Horvath was found dead in his prison cell, an apparent suicide. Daniel Wirth remains under house arrest and faces a maximum of five years in federal prison. He has also agreed to forfeit assets of more than $1 million obtained through fraudulent schemes.

A sign from God? Apparently not. But how did a bizarre study claiming mysterious supernatural results end up in a peer-reviewed medical journal? We may never know because for two and a half years the editors of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine have refused to answer calls or respond to letters about this study.

But this story has a happy ending, at least for those of us who support science and don’t believe in faith healing. The Los Angeles Times, the online version of Time Magazine, and several other newspapers have recently covered this ‘miracle’ scandal. Hopefully this will remind the editors of medical and scientific journals to think twice before publishing absurd studies claiming mysterious supernatural results.

Dr. Bruce Flamm is a Clinical Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of California-Irvine and has practiced Obstetrics & Gynecology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in California for the past twenty years. He has been the senior researcher on several multicenter collaborative studies and has authored dozens of medical articles and four books. He serves on the editorial board of several medical journals and lives with his wife Janice in California. He is a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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