Christiane Northrup in 2001. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The auditorium at Rhema Bible Training College in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma, was filled with more than 4,000 unmasked people and onstage sat dozens more when Maine’s celebrity physician, Dr. Christiane Northrup, stepped up to the podium the evening of April 16.

Disgraced Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn had stood in the same spot four hours earlier, railing to attendees of the Health and Freedom Conference against schoolchildren wearing masks and the validity of the 2020 election. Trump attorney Lin Wood would follow her an hour later, loudly extolling the “truth” of the QAnon conspiracy and urging the execution by firing squad of those who were allegedly kidnapping, raping and eating children, a sprawling cabal of evildoers he claimed included “the Clintons, the Obamas, the Bidens and the Bushes.”

Over the next 20 minutes Northrup – who once regularly graced Oprah Winfrey’s television couch, delivered a commencement address to the University of Maine at Farmington, and practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 26 years in Yarmouth – rattled out a stream of falsehoods: that COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent the disease but will make humankind sterile and might kill babies breastfed by their vaccinated mothers; that people shouldn’t wear masks but should fear being around vaccinated people, who could infect others with malignant vaccine particles and who are being secretly spied upon with components of the vaccine that covertly relay physiological information to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation via cellphone cameras and a patented mechanism involving cryptocurrency.

“I don’t actually want to have the body fluids of anybody who’s had (COVID-19 vaccines) come into my body,” she said, likening them to “murder weapons” and implying the audience should indefinitely separate themselves from the inoculated, including members of their own households. “I have heard today that many, many couples in Texas are getting divorced over this one.”

The crowd gave her a standing ovation. Dr. Northrup had found her new audience.

For those who remember her as The New York Times best-selling author of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist and champion of a feminine and intuitive approach to health and well-being, Northrup’s evolution over the past year may startle. She has emerged as one of the nation’s most influential figures in disseminating anti-vaccine conspiracy theories that are complicating the effort to put a lid on the global pandemic, which requires widespread vaccination to deny the virus hosts to propagate, mutate and spread.

With half a million Facebook followers, and hundreds of thousands more on Twitter and, until Thursday, Instagram, Northrup’s increasingly outrageous theories have an enormous reach. The Center for Confronting Digital Hate in late March named her as one of the “disinformation dozen” who collectively generate 65 percent of all anti-COVID-19 vaccine social media shares and up to 73 percent of those on Facebook.

“The typical way anti-vaxxers are portrayed is that they are a disorganized thing, but it’s actually an organized industry of highly capable propagandists,” says the center’s executive director, Imran Ahmed. “The content Northrup produces is dangerous and would lead people to take actions or not take actions which would protect their lives, and it’s unbelievable to see that she continues to have a platform on major social media platforms despite the fact she is a threat to biosecurity.”

Dr. Christiane Northrup in 2008. Evan Agostini/Associated Press

One of the nation’s most prominent epidemiologists, Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Northrup and the other members of the “disinformation dozen” are causing serious damage.

“I have no doubt that the disinformation has cost us tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives – people who have failed to protect themselves because they don’t believe in the virus,” says Nuzzo, who co-wrote a foreword to the center’s report. “Now we have a vaccine that can prevent deaths and hospitalizations. For people not to get vaccinated because they are convinced that the vaccines are bad for them, that’s a human tragedy the magnitude of which is hard to even describe.”

On April 16, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico called on Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram, to act in “a swift and decisive manner” against Northrup and the other members of the “disinformation dozen.”

“For too long, social media platforms have failed to adequately protect Americans by not taking sufficient action to prevent the spread of vaccine disinformation online,” the Democratic senators wrote. “Many of these accounts continue to post content that reach millions of users, repeatedly violating your policies with impunity.”

Northrup’s Instagram account, which had 175,500 followers, was blocked Thursday for purveying disinformation, a Facebook spokesman confirmed Friday. Her Facebook and Twitter accounts remained active.

CONSPIRACIES ABOUT THE VIRUS

Northrup, who allowed her medical license to expire in 2015, did not respond to numerous interview requests. In a recent Facebook video she defended her social media messaging, saying she wouldn’t “believe in unfounded conspiracies and become involved in something that would result in such defamation.”

But in her social media feeds, Northrup has put forward or endorsed a wide range of unfounded and conspiratorial messaging, telling her Facebook followers that vaccinated people might be “owned and controlled” by companies owning patented materials in the vaccine and advising Instagram followers from a Tulsa airport departure lounge April 18 that they should avoid vaccinated people, including spouses, because they could expose them to harmful vaccine materials extruded from their bodies.

“What I would do is choose your friends very carefully and stay away from people who are not on the same page if you possibly can,” she said in the video feed before boarding a flight to return to Maine. “Be with like-minded groups of people.”

On Twitter in November and December she spread false reports on conservative websites claiming scientists had discovered that people not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 don’t spread the disease (they do); that wearing masks causes wearers permanent damage through oxygen depletion; that a “Philly mob boss” had stolen the 2020 election from Donald Trump and might “flip on Biden”; and that the “end game” of those in charge of the pandemic is “genocide.”

The latter post Northrup shared claims the pandemic is planned, a “sinister plot” that aims “to cull a large percentage of the human race and to turn the survivors into a completely controlled army of slaves who own nothing and are dictated to and tracked, traced and monitored 24/7 everywhere, even inside their own homes, which of course they will no longer own.”

One of her more infamous endorsements came on May 5, 2020, when she shared a 26-minute conspiracy video, “Plandemic,” with her Facebook followers. An analysis by The New York Times found Northrup’s share played the key catalyzing role in the phenomenal spread of the slickly produced video, which argued that a secret cabal of elites was using COVID-19 and the vaccines that would be developed to fight it to enrich and empower themselves.

Dr. Christiane Northrup, author and gynecologist, moderates a panel discussion  in New York City in 2007. Andy Kropa/Associated Press

“Her status as a celebrity doctor made her endorsement of ‘Plandemic’ powerful,” The New York Times reported May 20. “After Dr. Northrup shared the video, more than 1,000 people also shared it, many of them to groups that oppose mandatory vaccinations.”

Northrup herself expounded on a vaccine conspiracy in a widely circulated video interview apparently recorded in October 2020, in which she claimed COVID-19 vaccines would change people’s DNA and infiltrate their bodies with tiny “nanoparticle” robots with two-way 5G antennas. “They have the ability to take your biometric data – not only your vaccine record, but your breathing, your heart rate, your activity, sexual activity, these drugs that you’re taking, where you travel – all of that and then take that data and store it in the cloud,” she said. This information, she said, would then be paired with a barcode that would “connect us to cryptocurrency, so that would become literally slaves to the system.”

“Once those nanoparticles go in, there’s no detoxing from them, there’s no getting them out of there,” Northrup continued. “They combine with your DNA and you are suddenly programmable, and with the proposed 5G networks the body would be an antenna where you could be controlled from outside of yourself.”

On Nov. 13 she retweeted a post from another member of the “disinformation dozen,” Sherri Tenpenny, that stated the “asymptomatic carrier con” was “the most evil genius ever devised to create a mass of subservient unthinking obedient slaves that are willing to give up being human just to stay ‘safe.’” Northrup prefaced the retweet with her own comment: “This is just plain TRUE! A crime against humanity.”

Her ungrounded theories have real-world impacts. In April a private Miami school her grandchildren attend, Centner Academy, announced it would no longer employ anyone who had received COVID-19 vaccinations. The school cited debunked information that echoed Northrup’s recent talking points in Tulsa and on social media: that “tens of thousands of women” were experiencing “adverse reproductive issues simply from being in close proximity with those who have received any one of the COVID-19 injections.”

“No one knows exactly what may be causing these irregularities, but it appears that those who have received the injections may be transmitting something from their bodies to those with whom they come in contact,” the school’s statement continued.

None of the COVID-19 vaccines have been linked to reproductive or neonatal problems, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise pregnant women to get vaccinated.

“She’s spread a bunch of lies abut the safety of these vaccines, so obviously this can lead to more and more people catching the virus and more and more people getting sick and dying from it,” says Jonathan Jarry of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, who tracks scientific disinformation and has followed Northrup’s social media evolution.

“The larger picture is that she tells her followers to trust their gut and their intuition and to not stop and think carefully about things first but to trust the first answer that pops into your head,” Jarry adds. “That’s dangerous, because there’s a lot of things in our world that are not intuitive.”

FROM O’s COUCH TO Q’S STAGE

Over the past quarter-century, Northrup’s path has led her from Oprah’s couch to the QAnon stage. A native of Buffalo, New York, and graduate of the Dartmouth Medical School, she has said she always had skepticism about conventional (and often male-dominated) approaches to medicine. In 1986 she opened a private practice in Yarmouth, Women to Women, that combined conventional and alternative medicine and helped pioneer the women’s health movement in Maine.

Dr. Christiane Northrup in 2001. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

She catapulted into national celebrity after the publication of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” in 1994, which was a New York Times best-seller, sold 1.6 million copies, was translated into 17 languages and landed her as a regular guest as a wellness expert on Oprah Winfrey’s and Dr. Oz’s shows. Oprah credited another of Northrup’s best-selling books, “The Wisdom of Menopause,” with inspiring her to lose weight and get in shape.

“She was able to go from a fairly straight-laced gynecologist with a legitimate practice and the social status that came with it to branching out to a national and international network of new age publishing and conferences,” says cult researcher Matthew Remski, co-host of the Conspirituality podcast, who has followed Northrup’s career. “When she comes out with ‘Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,’ she is playing this edge between offering fairly conventional medical advice and also opening her audience up to the idea that Chinese herbs and acupuncture might also be effective.”

Northrup stressed alternative therapies and was skeptical of vaccines long before the pandemic struck. In 2006 she began speaking out against what she saw as dangers with Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, and encouraged parents not to have their daughters receive it and to focus on good health and nutrition instead.

But by her own account to a QAnon podcaster, it was Maine’s 2019 law removing religious and philosophical vaccination exemptions for students and school and nursery school staff that made her become “very galvanized” around vaccination and certain public health mandates. When she went to testify against the bill on March 13 of that year, she was flabbergasted by the presence of so many experts supporting it.

“My colleagues get up there (like) someone inserted a tape deck into their head and said – this is the official narrative – ‘vaccines are safe and effective, and we need them for public health,’” she told the host of the QAnon FAQ podcast on May 20 of last year. “And I’m looking around at the people and the narrative and the science, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?'” – a reference to the movie set in a mental health institution.

When the coronavirus hit the United States in March 2020, Northrup quickly became convinced something nefarious was at work. Confined to her house at the end of March, she spent a lot of her energy in the first month of the crisis taking care of her terminally ill boyfriend until his death April 21. Then the themes of her social media feed began to take a darker turn.

“There was this slow but steady merger between her previously held New Age fascinations and anti-vaccinations beliefs with a lot of influences from either QAnon or Q-adjacent influencers on the internet,” says Remski, with her sharing of the “Plandemic” video on May 5 marking a sharp inflection point. ‘We have no idea where she was spending her time online, but it was pretty clear that she started functioning as a gateway between the QAnon world and more mainstream circles.”

By the time of her May 20 QAnon FAQ interview, Northrup was already suspicious of the pandemic, claiming that social distancing was “ridiculous,” that COVID-19 could be cured with vitamins, and that Maine Medical Center in Portland had shut down its COVID-19 wing. “I think there’s a dark agenda behind all of this,” she told the host. “I really can’t think anything else.”

She also volunteered that she was working with two other people who would later earn places in the “disinformation dozen” – Tenpenny and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – and that they formed “a big umbrella.”

“You need to know you’re not alone,” she told the Q audience. “You declare your sovereignty. ‘We do not consent!’”

Northrup’s political giving also shifted dramatically around this time. Over the previous decade she had made 17 federal campaign contributions that went overwhelmingly to Democrats or the action committees of Democratic-leaning groups like EMILY’s List and NARAL, Federal Election Commission filings show. But starting May 27 she began a rapid barrage of donations entirely to Republicans, Donald Trump and the Trump MAGA committee – 570 donations in all through November totaling $16,311. House recipients included gun rights firebrand Lauren Boebert, who is under scrutiny for her ties to groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; Trump-aligned mask opponent Michele Steele of California; and abortion opponent Dan Crenshaw, who received a 0 percent rating from NARAL, the pro-choice group, and a 100 percent rating from Right to Life America.

By the time she spoke in Oklahoma last month, Northrup’s contrarian pandemic message had further crystallized. “Do not allow yourself to get trampled by the lemmings running toward the cliff,” she told the audience, referring to people seeking vaccinations. “You are going to have the DNA that reseeds the planet, OK? You are going to have to do it. The rest of them there, there’s no going back. Do not chase people into burning buildings.”

Nuzzo, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, hopes other social media platforms take action against Northrup and the other members of the dozen. “It’s clear to me that this is an asymmetric fight, because doctors and nurses and public health agencies don’t have the resources to combat this false information on their own,” she says. “We can’t communicate our way out of this spiral if there are these highly organized groups, and we in the public health community just can’t match their reach.”

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