He Took Part In a Right-Wing Florida Hospital Protest. Now, He Is Losing His Board Certification for Spreading Covid Disinformation.
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Last week, I wrote about the far-right groups accusing Sarasota Memorial, a public safety-net hospital in Florida, of mistreating Covid patients. Despite a painstaking review showing that the hospital’s Covid outcomes have exceeded national standards, the groups—helmed by former Trump administration national security advisor Mike Flynn, QAnon adherents, and a key orchestrator of the January 6 insurrection—have continued their crusade. Over the last few months, public board meetings, which used to be sparsely attended and mundane affairs, have attracted hundreds of people, including speakers—many of whom had never been to or had a family member in the hospital—who extolled the virtues of unproven Covid treatments such as the antiparasitic drug ivermectin.
One of those speakers was Dr. John Littell, a family medicine physician from Ocala, a few hours north from Sarasota. After the February board meeting, Chris Nelson, a reporter from the far-right newspaper Epoch Times, tweeted out a video of Littell telling the story of how he allegedly got kicked out of the meeting for speaking in support of ivermectin. It turned out that story wasn’t exactly true—Littell wasn’t kicked out for speaking about ivermectin. Rather, he was escorted out of the meeting after security personnel observed him approaching and whispering in the ear of a board member. (This behavior was confirmed by Sarasota Memorial spokeswoman Kim Savage and Littell himself in an email to me.) But Nelson’s tweet went viral anyway—it’s since been retweeted more than 2,000 times.
On Wednesday, March 22, a few days after my story and a subsequent story by the New York Times came out, the American Board of Family Medicine revoked Dr. Littell’s board certification. In their letter they wrote, “ABFM has determined that your Public Channels contain false, inaccurate, and misleading statements constituting health misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19, the COVID-19 vaccine, and the effort of public health officials to address the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccination and other mitigation measures.”
Littell wasn’t ashamed of the board’s rebuke—quite the opposite. Less than 24 hours later, he was tweeting about it. “While loss of board certification would have financial consequences for me, and also impact my ability to care for hospitalized patients, I am most concerned about being unable to continue teaching and mentoring medical students,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “They are the future of medicine.” Littell has become something of a right-wing folk hero. The same day, InfoWars, the faux news service of Sandy Hook conspiracy theory Alex Jones, ran an indignant story about Littell’s board certification being revoked.
Media reports make Littell’s star turn appear to be an accident, the case of a regular doctor getting kicked out of a meeting. But long before he spoke at the Sarasota Memoria board meeting, Littell was a visible and outspoken critic of pandemic protections. Sarasota Memorial’s Savage noted that ABFM’s decertification process for Littell began in 2022, even before the Sarasota Hospital video went viral. Since 2020, he has posted often on social media, including on the right-wing channel Rumble, about his opposition to mask mandates, Covid vaccines, and his alleged use of ivermectin to treat 3,000 Covid patients. In addition to speaking out against Covid vaccines, he has also criticized routine childhood vaccinations. On March 8 he tweeted, “New family drove two hours to see me today. Their previously healthy son stopped speaking completely after barrage of vaccines at 18 months. Now age 4, and just starting to say ‘dada’ again, his pediatricians insist he get the Covid jab. I call it as I see it: child abuse.” In an email to Mother Jones, Littell said of routine childhood vaccines, “I have studied them in detail since the 1990s and I am convinced that several of the routinely administered childhood vaccines are no longer necessary and there are some that were never necessary to give as part of routine vaccination programs.” (Robust research shows that vaccines are necessary to prevent catastrophic outbreaks of disease, and that injuries from vaccine are exceedingly rare.)
But Covid isn’t the only issue on which Littell has engaged in activism: He is also a passionate anti-abortion crusader. Last February, the Florida Phoenix reported that he spoke at a meeting of lawmakers in the state’s House Health & Human Services Committee in favor of Florida’s 15-week abortion ban. “Those 15 weeks of a pregnancy are astonishing and we shouldn’t take that away from a mother,” he said. In 2014, he was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel voicing his opposition to a Planned Parenthood clinic that was set to open in Kissimmee, Florida.
An active member of the Catholic Medical Association, Littell is also a vocal critic of birth control. He is the author of the 2015 book The Hidden Truth: A Physician’s Advice to Women―and All Who Care for Them which chronicles the supposed “dangers of oral contraception.” Increasingly, this is a common technique used by anti-abortion activists: By claiming that hormonal birth control is unwholesome (despite reams of research that it’s safe), they hope to reach a secular group of young women, many of whom actually support abortion rights. In addition to his anti-abortion activities, Littell also is a practitioner of NaProTechnology, a fertility treatment that is sometimes referred to as IVF for Catholics. As I reported in 2017, NaProTechnology is not considered evidence-based.
When I emailed Littell last week, he told me he had “just finished speaking on behalf of women and their unborn children in crisis pregnancy at a pro-life function here in Florida.” In a follow-up email this week, I asked him about his position on hormonal birth control. He responded that his book on the subject was “completely based upon known evidence with regards to the consequences of synthetic steroids on women’s health, to include increasing the risks of breast, cancer and cervical cancer, depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease. All of these risks have been tolerated by women for decades, because of the overarching goal of preventing pregnancy and childbirth.” (The relationships between birth control and Littell’s list of conditions is complex; for a good primer on cancer risks start here; this is a good resource for beginning to untangle the very mixed evidence about birth control and depression; it’s fairly well-documented that birth control does not cause obesity.)
Littell’s twin passions—railing against pandemic protections and opposing abortion rights—reflect a growing cross-pollination between the anti-abortion and anti-vaccine movement. These two worlds have collided across the world. As Neha Wadekar and I found in a piece last year, the same groups who spread misinformation about abortion also spearhead anti-vaccine campaigns in Africa, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America.
If Littell were just a rogue doctor voicing a fringe opinion, he probably wouldn’t even be worthy of noticing. However, his stances aren’t too far off from those of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has also publicly criticized Covid vaccines and supported abortion bans. DeSantis’ surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, has championed the use of ivermectin as a Covid treatment. In a Substack post on Thursday, Allison Neitzel, a physician who writes about public health disinformation, noted that in response to having his board certification revoked, Littell mused, “Are they going to decertify Dr. Ladapo?”
This piece has been updated.