Christopher A. Warner says he considers himself something of a maverick, a caring physician willing to challenge medical orthodoxy in order to help women.
That's why the 39-year-old board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist recently opened the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of Washington in a red brick townhouse off Washington Circle. There, he is building a business as the first area physician to perform controversial procedures that use a laser to enhance sexual gratification by repairing tissue damaged by childbirth, to give women a "youthful aesthetic look" or to make those who are not appear to be virgins.
Warner's fledgling rejuvenation practice, experts say, exemplifies physicians' entry into what some have termed the "last frontier" of plastic surgery -- a realm where medical ethics collide with culture, commerce and technology.
In response to this growing interest, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons began tracking vaginal rejuvenation in 2005 and recorded 793 procedures that year. That figure is widely regarded as low, because many doctors who perform these operations are gynecologists, whose primary professional association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, does not keep such statistics.
While numbers are elusive, both critics and proponents of the procedures agree they are increasing. David L. Matlock, the flamboyant California gynecologist who invented or popularized many of these surgeries, says he has performed more than 3,000 in the past 12 years and has trained 140 doctors in a dozen states and 20 countries, including Argentina, Korea and Australia. His trainees -- Warner among them -- have established vaginal rejuvenation centers in New York, Atlanta, Detroit and San Antonio.
The proliferation of such surgeries, fueled in part by the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery and of reality television makeover shows such as the E! network's "Dr. 90210," alarms critics, who say there is no evidence they are safe or effective, because they have never been studied scientifically. Some say the procedures foster -- or create -- insecurity while doing little to treat the underlying causes of female sexual dissatisfaction.
"I'm asked about these procedures a lot," said sex therapist Laura Berman, who directs an eponymous clinic for women in Chicago. "We're in a culture, unfortunately, where most women are falling down a slippery slope with plastic surgery. It's very disturbing."
To doctors who perform the operations, usually in surgery centers or in their offices rather than in hospitals, such criticism is shortsighted. Warner, a graduate of Georgetown University School of Medicine who started an ob-gyn practice in 2000 and also maintains an office in Southeast Washington, said his goal is to empower women. "I see these procedures as taking care of my patients," said Warner, whose laser operations are performed in a downtown surgery center affiliated with MedStar Health.
Warner was trained by Matlock, who promotes the surgeries over the Internet, on television and through a public relations firm he owns.
Warner said he spent $80,000 on a medical laser and training courses given by Matlock, a regular on "Dr. 90210" who tightly controls the dissemination of the procedures through licenses and through trademarks for their names such as "Designer Laser Vaginoplasty." Warner said he has conferred frequently with Matlock in setting up his laser practice, which is expected to move into bigger quarters in the spring. Warner says calls to his practice increase dramatically after each of Matlock's television appearances.
Matlock is himself a controversial figure. He has been disciplined by the Medical Board of California for what he says is a "misunderstanding" with racial overtones and sued for malpractice 10 times in the past decade for what he characterizes as "nuisance cases."
One of the most vociferous critics is Thomas G. Stovall, a past president of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons. "There is absolutely zero scientific literature that supports . . . the notion that firing a laser of any kind will tighten [vaginal] muscles," said Stovall, who calls the surgery "a ripoff."