When conservative politicians need to apply a patina of expertise to an otherwise indefensible political position, Dr. Randall Williams is their man. The Missouri health department chief was hand-picked by then-Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017 as Williams wound up a controversial stint as North Carolina’s public health director.
Months before leaving North Carolina, Williams rescinded a “do not drink” order for hundreds of residents whose water wells were located near toxic ash ponds used by coal-fired power plants to dispose of their wastes. His decision coincided neatly with coal industry efforts to relax onerous restrictions on their waste-handling practices.
Whatever the Republican Party wanted, Williams appeared happy to deliver. In Missouri, his mission was to concoct a medical rationale for requiring invasive and often traumatic vaginal pelvic exams 72 hours before women can receive a pill to induce a medication abortion.
Rather than being a medical necessity, the requirement — affecting about 12.3 percent of all Missouri abortions — added yet another obstacle to women’s exercise of their abortion rights.
“We think that our job is to ensure the safety of women undergoing these procedures,” Williams, an Ob/Gyn doctor, said in December. “We think part of that is doing a pelvic exam prior to the procedure, whether it be medical or surgical — as good, standard medical practice.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says such decisions should be left not to lawmakers but to patients and their doctors.
Why would Williams veer so far from the standards of his profession? The likely reason is that he’s a gun for hire. He concocts the medical rationale to fit whatever the conservative cause-of-the-day demands.
Consider the twisted logic behind his decision to cancel safety precautions for water wells near North Carolina coal ash ponds. In 2015, state authorities issued advisories after tests found elevated levels of carcinogens in private wells near coal-fired power plants.
A year later, Williams stated that those advisories went overboard, echoing coal industry complaints about regulatory overreach. “Based on new information, we felt it was appropriate to change them,” he said. When it came to picking sides between the safety of well water and appeasing the GOP-friendly coal industry, Williams told North Carolinians to drink up.
Last year, heavy flooding from Hurricane Florence sent coal ash from some of those very ponds spilling into a river that supplies drinking water to much of southeastern North Carolina, resulting in a major health scare. With Williams out of the picture, North Carolina changed its tune and ordered a complete excavation of all coal ash ponds — at a potential cleanup cost of $5 billion.
Now Williams is working his medical magic in Missouri. It’s all about safety, you see. Not that of abortion patients or well-water drinkers but of Republican politicians and their benefactors.