She tweets while she’s walking Luna, her nearly blind cat. (Yes, walking her. On a leash.) And while she’s at home, waiting for the sourdough to rise. She blogs while she’s directing her two teenage sons to fold the laundry.
In posts that careen between empathy, outrage, and snark, Dr. Jennifer Gunter presses a provocative crusade to protect women’s health, preserve reproductive freedoms — and, while she’s at it, dismantle all the dubious, dangerous medical advice she comes across in the wilds of the internet. (No, she recently explained to her male readers, you should not forgo condoms in favor of taping your penis shut during sex.)
Gunter, a Bay Area gynecologist, shot into the media spotlight in recent months by taking on actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose lifestyle brand, Goop, peddles — among other gynecologically suspect “wellness” items — jade eggs that women are advised to tuck into their vaginas to improve their spiritual and sexual health. Gunter, mincing zero words, has repeatedly trashed Goop while portraying herself as a valiant defender of science.
But for Gunter, 55, jade eggs are hardly top of mind. She regularly takes on far more controversial topics in posts that sometimes lack proper punctuation but always crackle with passion. She has defended women’s right to terminate pregnancies because of the fetus’s gender, blasted a college class that pushed anti-vaccine propaganda, and has written frankly of her own struggles with binge eating disorder and her anger at the media’s promotion of unrealistic body images.
And she wades regularly into the political arena.
Back in 2015, when Dr. Ben Carson was running for president, the neurosurgeon told Fox News that he opposed using fetal tissue in research, saying the practice has contributed little to the medical knowledge. He also vividly described a 17-week-old fetus as far more than an anonymous mass of cells, noting it was possessed of “a nice little nose and little fingers and hands.”
So Gunter pointed out some hypocrisy on his part: Carson co-authored a 1992 paper that was based on findings from aborted fetal tissue, including from a 17-week-old fetus.
The backlash was heavy, prompting Gunter to begin censoring comments on her blog and blocking her opponents on Twitter.
During the presidential election, Gunter burst onto the radar of many political junkies with a post picking apart every line of the infamous letter that Donald Trump released from his personal physician proclaiming that his recent test results were not just uniformly positive, but also “astonishingly excellent.” She would have none of it.
“‘Only positive results’ is gibberish. Some tests are good if they are positive and some are bad if they are positive. Some results are just not binary. For example a hemoglobin (blood count) is a number and not positive or negative,” she wrote. “And while we’re at it doctors just don’t say ‘laboratory test results’ that sounds like something on a soap opera.”
“When I first started blogging, I tried to write the way I thought people wanted doctors to be — but then I thought … ‘that’s not me.’ I gotta write like me. People respond to authenticity.”
Dr. Jen Gunter
More recently, Gunter spent months ripping Republican health care proposals; one blog post drew on her own past experience with flimsy coverage to explain exactly what it could mean to consumers if the GOP allowed insurers to sell bare-bones plans. And when the Democratic National Committee recently announced it would consider backing pro-life candidates, she jumped headlong into the fray, tweeting: “Hey @DNC I will happily help educate the pro-life candidates about reproductive health, seriously.”
Her readers — including 53,000 followers on Twitter — either love her or loathe her. Fans tell her about their cats, their sick relatives, their own experiences with abortions. She often writes back — and never hesitates to retweet their praise for her work.
Foes, however, call her out for everything from wearing a red wig in her Twitter avatar (“if you lie in your avi, you’ll lie about #Healthcare”) to crediting affordable health insurance for saving her sons’ lives when they were born months premature.
that is a lie. They'd have gotten the care they needed. Hospitals have line items in their budgets for charity cases and Dr's work pro bono
— jeandiata (@jeandiata) July 25, 2017
Gunter’s blog, which has been active since 2011, drew 4 million page visits last year and has already notched another 4 million so far this year. Her readership is wildly diverse, with both teenagers and senior citizens leaving comments.
“I’m just writing with my voice,” Gunter said. “When I first started blogging, I tried to write the way I thought people wanted doctors to be — but then I thought, ‘Fuck it, man, that’s not me.’ I gotta write like me. People respond to authenticity.”
‘Alone as a human can be’
Fourteen years ago, pregnant with triplets, Gunter went into labor just shy of 23 weeks — a little over halfway through a healthy pregnancy. Doctors worked to hold off delivery, but the first of her sons was born three days later. He died within minutes.
“I was a parent and then I was not,” she recently wrote of her experience. “My son lived three minutes and then I was left as alone as a human can be. Subtraction is the worst kind of maternity math.”
It was a numbing and devastating time for Gunter. The medical team was able keep her other two boys inside her for three more weeks. But they were still born more than three months premature, and one had a major heart defect that required several surgeries.
As any parent might, Gunter trawled the internet for advice on how to cope. And she turned up with very little.
“I started thinking: If I’m a doctor, and I’m having a hard time — what about all those people who don’t have a medical degree?” she said.
So Gunter, who now works for the Kaiser health system, began chronicling her experiences as the mother of premature sons. That led to her writing a book, “The Preemie Primer,” which guides parents through the emotional, medical, and economic costs of raising a child born prematurely.
As her sons grew up and out of their symptoms, Gunter kept writing, but moved on to other topics. She focused on women’s health and sexual health. (An early favorite target, before Goop, was Cosmopolitan magazine and its regular articles about fun new sex positions.) Her blog’s tagline: “Wielding the lasso of truth.”
Gunter scours the scientific literature before offering medical advice, determined to debunk myths and promote only evidence-based treatments.
“I wanted,” she said, “to try and clean up my little corner of the internet.”
Dishing out the vitriol
Of course, Gunter’s definition of “clean” is not everyone’s.
Her posts are speckled with expletives and sarcasm, and while her blog warns against hateful comments — “don’t demean your passion with vitriol,” she writes — she can be plenty vitriolic herself, especially when she takes on the Trump administration. Or Goop.
Trump spoke his mind as a rambling, ill-informed, racist, misogynist, sexual assaulter, but HRC could not speak her mind. INFURIATING. https://t.co/9F4MBcfDYk
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) May 28, 2017
People like Mike Pence are coated in such a thick varnish of self righteousness there is no crack for the light to get in
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) November 19, 2016
In her war with Goop, Gunter positions herself above the fray because she’s not selling anything. She doesn’t take money from drug companies. She writes, she said, because she’s alarmed by the growing rift between evidence-based medicine and alternative therapies.
“People assume that you have some kind of agenda — you’re in the pocket of Big Pharma, or in the pocket of Big Food,” said Tim Caulfield, a professor of law at the University of Alberta and a friend of Gunter’s. He penned the book “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?” and commiserates with Gunter about the realities of writing on pseudoscience.
“We often face this attempt to create false dichotomies,” he said. “If you’re against natural health, or against Gwyneth, then you’re automatically pro-pharma or pro-surgery. It’s a very effective tactic for divisiveness.”
“The rational scientific viewpoint is massively outgunned, outnumbered, and out-financed,” said Dr. David Gorski, a Detroit-based surgeon and managing editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine. “The other stuff, it makes money.”
For her part, Gunter dismisses many of her critics as misguided: “In general, they are women who report the jade egg has awakened them spiritually,” she said. “My answer is: Then it is a religion, and don’t put it in the health section or claim it can balance hormones.”
That argument has drawn sharp criticism from some quarters.
Dr. Aviva Romm, a physician who has written for Goop, told STAT that Gunter is too broadly dismissive of alternative approaches to wellness. Gunter pokes fun at Goop for endorsing the idea of talking to spirits to promote self-healing — but, Romm said, that’s a common approach practiced by healers and shamans around the world.
“So you have basically just dissed every traditional culture, every indigenous tribal practice,” Romm said. “And not only that, but what about Christians and Jews and Muslims who talk to spirits and hear God’s voice? These are the sort of blatant accusations that are not accurate, they’re not evidence-based, and they’re not respectful.”
A searing post about abortion
Gunter used to perform abortions and deliver babies. She doesn’t now. After her first son’s death, she said, it’s too traumatic.
But she continues to work full time as a gynecologist — she’s also trained as a pain medicine specialist — and she has blogged regularly about her experiences with abortion.
One of her favorite posts is also one of her most searing: It’s a defense of women’s right to seek sex-selective abortion. During her medical training, she writes, she learned to counsel women and make sure they were not being coerced into abortion. She talked to them about alternatives and the importance of contraception. “But motivation? Oh, God, that word offends me,” she writes. “Who decides what is appropriate motivation for an abortion and what is not?”
Gunter recounts a patient whose husband beat her after she delivered another girl — and did not want to go through that again. “Do I judge her? Do I with my upper middle class upbringing and the earning potential of a physician say, ‘Sorry honey, not tragic enough?’ And what if she doesn’t get that abortion and is then beaten to death in her third trimester or after she delivers? I’ve seen that,” Gunter writes.
In the past, she notes, Canada required women to go before an “abortion panel” and “beg and plead their case in front of three ‘experts,’ like a medieval tribunal. … I grew up in the era of abortion panels and that is exactly why I became an OB/GYN.”
Along with her blog and her tweets, Gunter is working on a book she defines as “a definitive guide to vaginal health.”
She’s also toying with the idea of writing a book on weight loss. Gunter has struggled her entire life with a binge eating disorder and spent years significantly overweight.
“It’s a daily struggle,” Gunter said. “I look at it as if you’re perpetually climbing Mount Everest: Avalanches, weather changes, the elements trying to constantly kill you. … That’s the rest of your life with food.”
Gunter lost 60 pounds about seven years ago, and has managed to keep it off. She wants to give others medical advice on doing the same. But she won’t promise easy fixes. It’s work, she said.
Her house is on a steep hill in the Bay Area. Gunter runs up and down it three or four times a week, tweeting as she goes.
Megan Thielking contributed to this report.