Stem-ing the Debate

Eesha Pandit

With new techniques for controversy-free stem cells in reach, there are several critical issues to keep in mind as stem cell research becomes commonplace.

Embyonic stem cells, a rare and precious resource in the scientific community, are about to get a change in status. Researchers from Japan and Wisconsin have discovered a way to produce stem cells without the embryos. They were able to create the cells by re-programming mature adult stem cells. These mature, adult cells are called "pluripotent stem cells," and can potentially become every other kind of cell, debunking the idea that only embryonic stem cells are capable of this feat.

Currently, federal funds are allowed to be used for those stem cell lines created on or before August 9, 2001, per the Bush administration policy instituted on that date. The new finding is being heralded as the solution to the problem of limited access to stem cell lines. From Richard Hayes of the Center for Genetics and Society in the LA Times:

In general, Republicans have equated medical research using single-celled clonal embryos with murder, while Democrats have promoted state ballot initiatives enshrining human embryo cloning as a constitutional right and committing billions of taxpayer dollars to a procedure that could open the door to socially pernicious applications, threaten women's health and exacerbate healthcare inequities.

Now we have a chance to put the cloning debate behind us.

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Hayes goes on to argue that with the cloning debate on the back burner we can get to the matter of addressing the implications of genetic technologies. But before I get to that, a little primer on the new developments:

There are indeed several benefits to this new research finding. Specifically, according to Joshua Trojak, acting executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, the new finding could "make it easier for scientists to collaborate across state lines." Currently, collaborative research among states is challenging given that each state that funds embryonic stem cell research has separate rules, regulation and restrictions. Further, states that have severely restricted or no access to these cell lines are likely to commit funding for research using the new technique.

This might have some negative implications for scientific research if the new technology eclipses current research on embryonic stem cells. According to the Post, Richard Murphy, interim director of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine , claimed that will be "two parallel tracks of research" involving embryonic stem cells and stem cells derived from adult cells via the new technology. In an effort to make these distinctions clear, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said research using the new methods would be eligible for federal funds with the "only limit [being] the quality of the science" (Washington Post, 11/22). On the international front, German Research Minister Annette Schavan announced that the German government will double its funding for stem cell research from five million euros, or $7.4 million, to just under 10 million euros, or about $14.8 million.

Assuming that these issues can be reconciled and the procedures are effectively compatible, where do we go from here? There are several critical issues to keep in mind as stem cell research becomes commonplace:

  • § Biomedical research for health care advancements must be ethical and responsible to the needs of patients and marginalized communities. Medical decisions should be made by patients based on their personal values, beliefs and community needs.
  • § We cannot abandon social justice and equality of care as technologies become readily accessible. There are existing gender/sexuality race and economic disparities that affect health care — new technologies should aim to close these gaps and not exacerbate them.
  • § As genetic therapies increase, we must keep in mind the history of race and gender based eugenic concerns.
  • § We must also create and maintain strong relationships with activists in the disability rights community to ensure that their concerns are represented.

As technologies become less controversial and increasingly supported women's health and reproductive justice advocates must keep vigilant watch to ensure that they meet the needs of our bodies and communities.

Investigations Media

The ‘HUSH’ Documentary: Another Secret Recording Inside an Abortion Clinic

Sharona Coutts

HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts. The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.

Another day, another secret recording made in an abortion clinic.

At least, that’s the very strong impression given by some of the scenes contained within the documentary film HUSH, which premiered late last year and is currently making the rounds of film festivals and anti-choice conferences in the United States and internationally, including the National Right to Life Convention that took place in Virginia last month.

The film is the creation of Mighty Motion Pictures and Canadian reporter Punam Kumar Gill, who says in the film that she is pro-choice, a “product of feminism.” It purports to tell the story of “one woman,” Gill, who “investigates the untold effects of abortion on women’s health.”

HUSH—which claims in the film’s credits to have received support from the Canadian government—attempts to cast itself as neither pro-choice nor “pro-life,” but simply “pro-information.” The producers insist throughout the film, in their publicity materials, and in private emails seen by Rewire that their film is objective and balanced.

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That’s how they pitched it to Dr. David Grimes, a highly respected OB-GYN and a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who agreed to do on-camera interviews for the film. Grimes now says the producers and reporter misled him about their intentions.

“There was no balance,” Grimes told Rewire. “It’s a hatchet job. It’s obvious.”

Indeed, HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited, many of whom are featured in Rewire‘s gallery of False Witnesses. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts—namely, that abortion is linked to a host of grave physical and mental health threats, “like breast cancer, premature birth, and psychological damage.”

The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.

When Anti-Choice “Science” Goes Conspiracy Theory

As a piece of propaganda, the use of the conspiracy theory has the advantage of removing the debate over abortion’s safety from the realm of logic. In HUSH‘s topsy-turvy world, the medical establishment becomes the scare-quoted “Medical Establishment,” and the more distinguished or authoritative a person or organization, the more suspect they become.

For reasons that remain murky, the film’s thesis is that the world’s leading reproductive and health organizations—including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization, along with all of their staff, contractors, and affiliated experts—have been hiding information about the risks of abortion.

This is most apparent when the reporter, Gill, tells the viewers that “if women have the right to abortion, they should also have the right to know” about the risks she believes she has identified.

Later, the film shows graphics highlighting the states that have various informed consent laws—some of which are literally called “A Woman’s Right to Know” acts—that force providers to give patients false information about the safety of abortion. Rather than concluding that the authority of the state has been used to mandate that doctors provide medically unsound “counseling” using the very junk science that Gill presents throughout the film, she hews to the back-to-front logic of all conspiracy theories. In her view, the existence of these laws shows that the risks are real, but that the faceless, nameless “they” still won’t let women in on the their deadly secrets.

In Gill’s world, the unwillingness of organizations to speak with her becomes evidence that they are hiding something.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tells Gill that it won’t fulfill her requests by giving her an interview because the science is settled; Gill sees this as a sign of conspiracy.

“This is where I started to feel equally suspicious of those denying any link,” Gill tells the viewer, her voice floating over inky footage of the U.S. Capitol at night. Lights from the Capitol dance on the velvety surface of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and Gill confides: “I felt like I was digging into something much deeper and darker.”

A comical scene ensues where Gill is astonished to find that turning up with a film crew on the grounds of the National Cancer Institute does not suddenly persuade it to grant her an interview with one of its experts.

“What was going on here?” says Gill in her voiceover. “It was like they really didn’t want any questions being asked.”

In fact, the National Cancer Institute had replied to Gill’s multiple requests with links to its website, which contains the conclusive studies that have long since dispelled the notion that any link exists between abortion and breast cancer. The film shows footage of those emails.

Furthermore, Grimes provided Rewire with copies of emails he had exchanged with the film’s producers during its production, in which he gave them citations to relevant studies and warned them that the work of the anti-choice “experts” they had approached had been thoroughly debunked.

After seeing the film, Grimes emailed the producers inquiring why they hadn’t simply asked him to connect them with additional experts.

“Had you truly wanted more pro-choice researchers to speak to these issues, I could have named scores of colleagues from the membership of the Society for Family Planning and Physicians for Reproductive Health who would have been happy to help,” Grimes wrote in a note he shared with Rewire. “You did not ask. That some organizations like the National Cancer Institute did not want to take part in your film in no way implies a reluctance on the part of the broader medical community to speak about abortion research.”

It seems that Gill—whose online biographies give no indication that she is a scientist—would not have been satisfied in hearing about existing research. She tells the viewers that, in her view, “more study is needed to determine the extent of the abortion-breast cancer link,” and concludes that “to entirely deny the connection is ludicrous.”

In an interview with Rewire, Grimes noted that doing such research would be viewed as unethical by reputable scientists.

“That issue is settled, and we should not waste limited resources that should be directed to urgent, unanswered questions, such as the cause of endometriosis and racial disparities in gynecologic cancers,” he said.

Grimes made his dissatisfaction clear to the producers. He wrote to them: “My inference after viewing the film is that you are suggesting a large international conspiracy of silence on the part of major medical and public health organizations, the motivation for which is not specified.”

The corollary to the suspicion cast over the most reputable research and representative bodies is that the film transforms the marginal status of the anti-choice “experts” into a boon.

Seen through HUSH‘s conspiracy theory lens, the fact that the work of people like Priscilla Coleman, David Reardon, and Angela Lanfranchi is rejected by the medical establishment becomes proof not of the unsoundness of their ideas, but rather that a conspiracy is afoot to silence them.

Instead of presenting this small but vociferous group of discredited activists as outliers—shunned because their theories have no scientific basis, or because they lack any credentials relevant to reproductive or mental health, or because they have repeatedly mischaracterized data—HUSH paints them as whistle-blowing renegades determined to set the truth free.

A tearful Lanfranchi recounts the story of patients who came to her with aggressive breast cancer in their 30s. Lanfranchi says she strove to understand “why this was happening,” and realized that each of these young women had had abortions, which she then concluded had caused their cancer. Lanfranchi said her hopes that the public would learn of this risk were dashed over time.

“Over the years I’ve realized that, no, it didn’t matter how many studies there were,” she tells viewers. “That information was not going to get out.”

Joel Brind says that he has worked with a colleague whom he says he later discovered was pro-choice, but that their views on abortion never came up. “This is about science,” he tells Gill. “This is about the effect on women and whether or not abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Period.”

Gill asks both Lanfranchi and Brind whether they are trying to “stop abortion,” or whether they “want abortion to go away.” Both answer that all they want is for women to be informed when they exercise their choice.

The film makes no mention of the fact that both have been anti-choice activists for decades; they have each testified in support of anti-choice laws in both legislative and judicial proceedings, and both have participated in the extreme right-wing, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families.

To the extent that HUSH acknowledges these activists’ bias, it is couched in a softer light that is linked, implicitly, to their religious views—a reality raised by Grimes in his on-camera interview, in which he notes, accurately, that the anti-choice “intellectuals” often lack the relevant medical or scientific qualifications to do the type of work they purport to do, but that they do tend to share religious convictions that lead them to oppose abortion and contraception.

That allows the producers to imply that the False Witnesses are perhaps victims of discrimination; to suggest that their work is being discounted because of the activists’ religious beliefs, and not because the work itself has been thoroughly debunked. Play the ball, not the man, appears to be the producers’ plea.

It’s a conspiracy theory twilight zone: where medical groups withhold information for reasons so cloudy that they cannot be articulated, but where people who have for years worn their beliefs on their sleeves cannot be evaluated with those political views in mind.

After asserting that she is, herself, pro-choice, Gill says she “finds validity” in the claims of the anti-choice advocates, and that she finds it “sickening” that the “media and health organizations have spent their energies closing the case and vilifying those who advocate in favor of the link, instead of investigating any and all reasons why breast cancer rates among young women have increased and women are dying.”

The producer, Joses Martin, did not answer Rewire’s questions about the experts he and his team had selected, other than to say, “We are very proud of the balanced approach that we’ve taken in this documentary that is neither anti-abortion nor pro-abortion.”

Another Instance of Secret Recordings Made in Abortion Clinics

What troubles Grimes most about the film is not so much that he was cast as the face of an international conspiracy by virtue of being the sole pro-choice physician to appear on camera, but that he may be associated with people who appear to have made secret recordings in at least one abortion clinic.

The footage and audio in question have been heavily edited, and it is difficult to discern what is real from what has been staged or spliced to give certain effects.

Early in the film, Gill is shown standing in the entry path to what the producers identify as a “Seattle abortion clinic.” As she makes her way inside, the footage swaps to guerilla-style, hidden camera shots, which capture wall artwork that appears in some Planned Parenthood clinics. Viewers see Gill’s face in the waiting room, as well as blurs of other people there. The film then swaps to audio recordings without any video footage. Gill can be heard posing as a patient, receiving counseling from a woman who is identified as a “health center manager.” This audio is used twice more during the film.

In Washington state, it is a crime to make audio or video recordings of people without their consent. Similar laws are in place in California, Florida, and Maryland, states where David Daleiden and his co-defendants from the Center for Medical Progress made their surreptitious videos of Planned Parenthood employees and members of the National Abortion Federation.

Grimes asked the producers whether they had obtained permission to make any of those recordings; Rewire asked the producers whether the recordings were in fact made in Seattle.

The producer, Joses Martin, replied to Grimes that he would “not be disclosing the name or location of the clinic or the name of the individual recorded to yourself or anyone else.”

“We have kept this information undisclosed and private both in the film and out of the film to not bring any undue burden on them. We’re certainly not implicating anyone involved of wrong doings, as was the goal in the Center For Medical Progress case,” Martin wrote in an email shared with Rewire.

In an email to Rewire, Martin did not answer our specific questions about the recordings, but asserted, “We did not break any laws in the gathering of our footage.”

Planned Parenthood had no comment on whether the crew had obtained consent to film inside its clinics, or whether Gill had misrepresented herself throughout her conversation with the counselor. Nor did the organization comment on the increasing use of secret recordings by anti-choice activists within its clinics. In a federal suit, Planned Parenthood has sued Daleiden for breaches of similar laws in California, Florida, and Maryland.

The branch of the Canadian government that the producers credited with supporting the film was less sanguine when informed about the apparent use of secret recordings made in American abortion clinics.

The film’s credits say that it was produced “with the assistance of the Government of Alberta, Alberta Media Fund,” but when Rewire contacted that Canadian province to learn why it had funded a piece of anti-choice propaganda, a spokesperson distanced the fund from the film.

“We have entered into conversations with the production company but we do not at this point have a formal agreement in place, and we were not aware that the production had been completed,” the spokesperson said. “We’re not able to comment on any funding because to date we have not funded the project. Thank you for bringing the use of our logo to our attention and we’ll be in touch with the producers to discuss.” The producers did not reply to Rewire’s question about their use of the logo.

Ironically, while the producer, Martin, did reply to emails from both Grimes and Rewire (albeit without answering specific questions), the reporter, Gill, remained silent. She never answered questions about what she knew about the backgrounds of the False Witnesses to whose work she lent such credence. She didn’t respond to our questions about whether she obtained permission to record video or audio within abortion clinics, or where those clinics were located. And she didn’t reply to our questions about the nature of her relationship with the extreme anti-choice group Live Action, who also received a credit at the end of the film.

To a reporter such as Gill, such silence would surely have been deeply suspicious.

Rewire Investigative Reporter, Amy Littlefield, contributed to this report. 

Commentary Politics

The Loss of Our Sons and Daughters Is More Than a Political Moment

Toni Bond Leonard

We must bear witness to support the Black mothers who shared their stories of losing children to state and racial violence at the Democratic National Convention. But bearing witness means demanding justice and policy change.

When I watched the Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black mothers of slain children—take center stage at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week, I saw Black women “making a way out of no way.” We turn our suffering and righteous indignation into agency.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, talked about being thrust into the spotlight while grappling with her teenage son’s killing. Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, began her remarks by acknowledging God’s greatness and how the mothers’ presence at the DNC was itself proof of that greatness. She then related the horrific details of her 28-year-old daughter being found hanging in a Texas jail cell after a possibly unlawful traffic stop in 2015. She called it the worst nightmare anyone could imagine.

But as eloquent and moving as the Mothers of the Movement were, their narratives were treated as a political moment that demonstrated mostly that Hillary Clinton had successfully campaigned to garner the backing of these mothers who are surviving reproductive loss. As I watched Reed-Veal fight back tears, I wondered what type of strength it takes to find peace with such a loss.

The lives of women such as Fulton and Reed-Veal—and those of their deceased children and their remaining families—matter more than a fleeting appearance in Philadelphia. While Clinton is apparently able to imagine what it means to lose a child and talk about that on the campaign trail, it is different to live with the immeasurable weight of losing a loved one, especially when it was due to systemic racism.

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In the Christian tradition, we remember Jesus’ suffering on the cross. And the mothers’ words call us to bear witness to police violence and the women who suffer irreparable reproductive loss. But bearing witness requires us to do more than see and hear about atrocities. We must also demand justice.

Reproductive justice theory holds that women have the human rights to bear children (or not), and to parent with the necessary social and economic supports so that their children not only survive, but thrive. Thriving means access to safe affordable housing, quality education, a living wage, healthy foods, and health care that is grounded in prevention and healing. It means living without fear of violence, especially from the very state authorities entrusted with protecting us.

In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, womanist theologian Delores Williams discusses Black women and a particular type of “surrogacy.” She uses the biblical story of Egyptian slave Hagar, who became Abraham’s concubine to bear him the son that his wife, Sarah, had not. Hagar’s body—and her child—were not her own. Williams argues that Black women have long been forced to step into others’ roles—raising white women’s children during and after slavery, for one—and that surrogacy has been exploitative.

We stand now in a moment where Black women are still surrogates. Their children are not their own, used as human targets by law enforcement and racists to act out their hatred of Black people. And even as the Mothers of the Movement struggle to grieve, their pain plays out in public.

To honor and address their pain, we must listen compassionately to Black people who say “Black Lives Matter.” The shootings of police officers cannot be used to scapegoat the legitimate concerns and demands of Black Lives Matter, which push us to confront historical and ongoing violence against Black Americans. Those urgent cries must fall on ears ready to understand the long history of our lives not mattering in this country. Those cries come from the collective memory of enslaved Black bodies, especially Black mothers forced to bear children to gratify economic greed, and firsthand contemporary experience.

Political candidates must also do more than just listen to the heartrending stories. They must also put forth concrete legislation to address the structural inequality behind racial profiling and the murders of Black people.

While Clinton’s platform includes ending gun violence and building trust between communities and police, what we did not hear at the DNC was how she would advance policies that would prevent the tragic reproductive loss that the Mothers of the Movement now know.

Her platform sounds progressive, but I cannot help but remember her racially coded comments in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act: that youth in gangs “are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Typically, dogs are brought to heel so that they walk close to or follow their owners. An unconscious, unfortunate choice of wording, perhaps? Still, the anti-poor legislation passed during her husband’s administration, and which she supported, has created and worsened conditions that shove poor families, disproportionately families of color, further into poverty.

In this watershed moment, radical accountability is needed if we’re to stem the use of deadly force against Black people.

Our elected leaders can model accountability by admitting that their own policies or statements have fed the police and not hungry people. Quite frankly, Clinton’s support of the crime bill and of the federal welfare reform requires some meaningful and public repentance.

And that repentance has to be more than a moment at the DNC or any future political gathering, but a sincere strategy to correct the injustices that claimed the Mothers of the Movement’s children. This is what it means to bear witness.

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