RealTime: Prostitution Pledge for Politicians

Scott Swenson

In light of revelations of New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's involvement with a prostitution ring, and the fact that Sen. David Vitter will be voting on PEPFAR soon, we propose a new Prostitution Pledge for Politicians.

As Congress and the White House prepare to compromise the lives of millions of African women and girls by continuing the nonsensical anti-prostitution pledge in PEPFAR, we have evidence, yet again, of just how hypocritical it is for politicians to sit in judgment of anyone else's life. New York Governor Elliot Spitzer (D-NY) is in the process of tanking one of the most promising political careers in the country over his involvement with a prostitution ring in New York.

Just last year Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) was caught up with the DC Madame, but kept his job in the Senate where he is attempting to win his way back into the hearts of conservatives by championing more judgmental legislation. Vitter will have an opportunity to do right by sex workers, by voting to remove the anti-prostitution pledge, when the Senate votes on PEPFAR soon. Will he vote to support the services of women he was once intimate with, or vote with the hypocrites compromising the lives of millions?

So how about it, Congress? Enough of the hypocritical moralizing on PEPFAR. No matter how much you enjoy sitting in judgment over the lives of others, prostitutes exist, and are often on the margins of our society. Allowing organizations who are trying to stop the spread of HIV to use tax dollars to educate, prevent and treat this vulnerable population makes sense.

But perhaps I've missed the point. Maybe politicians aren't judging all sex workers, just those that aren't part of the high class Park Avenue and Watergate denizens frequented by the governing elite. Maybe Congress is just judging those women in Africa and other parts of the world who because of poverty are forced to support themselves and their children by selling sex in the streets and on the truck routes where less political men seek their services.

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For a Congress that includes David Vitter as a sitting member, with a Democratic majority that up until today believed Spitzer was a rising star, to pass PEPFAR with the anti-prostitution pledge that essentially consigns many women and girls to death sentences, is exactly what is wrong with politics in America today. And some people just call it "compromise."

How about we insert this substitute language in the bill,

As an American politician I will stop all hypocritical, self-righteous moralizing and judgment of the lives of others. I pledge to support legislation that treats all humans as equals and ensure that foreign assistance dollars intended to stop HIV/AIDS are allocated using the very best public health strategies, based on real evidence, and targeted to those most vulnerable. When I access the services of a sex worker, call girl, escort or madame, I will always use protection and make sure s/he has access to adequate health care. I will stop dragging my innocent spouse in front of television cameras to support me in a moment of self-inflicted hypocrisy.

Commentary Abortion

Language Matters: Why I Don’t Fear Being Called ‘Pro-Abortion’

Maureen Shaw

Words can and do hurt, especially when they cast people who seek or provide abortion care as immoral or murderers. But pro-choice activists can embrace unapologetic language that represents hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy.

Recently, an anti-choice website profiled me, repeatedly describing me as “pro-abortion.” I understood immediately that this was meant to be an insult and a negative character judgment. But instead of taking offense or feeling bullied, I smiled—even as the vitriol poured into my Twitter mentions.

I haven’t always been able to smile at anti-choice trolls. They attack your ideology, personality, and even your family. It’s threatening and can feel very unsafe, and with good reason; just ask any clinic escort, pro-choice journalist, or abortion provider who has been targeted by anti-choice zealots or organizations. Online harassment and bullying is deliberate and meant to incite fear; it’s also a stepping stone to physical violence and intimidation.

The first time I was on the receiving end of such hatred, it made me sick to my stomach and I was tempted to abandon social media altogether. But removing my pro-choice voice from the conversation felt like handing trolls a victory. So with a few tweaks to my public profiles (like erasing my location and no longer posting photos of my children), I’ve decidedly moved beyond that fear and refuse to shrink in the face of online harassment (Twitter’s mute function certainly helps too).

These experiences taught me two very important lessons: first, about cowardice (it’s so easy to spew hatred from the anonymity of the internet) and second, about the importance of language. Most of us here in the United States have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this is certainly true in the most literal of interpretations, we know words can hurt when they come in the form of threats against abortion providers or calling women who have abortions “murderers.”

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Indeed, the way we talk about abortion is critical, from how we describe our adversaries to legislative bill titles and abortion procedures themselves. When anti-choice lawmakers and activists wield language that is inflammatory, misleading, or demonizing, the public’s perceptions of abortion are compromised. The ensuing negativity, in turn, helps transform commonplace medical procedures into “morally repugnant offenses”—to use the language of ethics, which the anti-choice movement so often co-opts—that abortion opponents want to heavily restrict (at best) or outlaw (at worst).

The so-called pro-life constituency understands this all too well and has done a brilliant job of manipulating language to guide the national discourse on abortion. Even the “pro-life” moniker is a calculated—not to mention hypocritical—move. After all, if a person is not “pro-life,” they’re implicitly anti-family and anti-child. This automatically puts pro-choice activists and allies in a needlessly defensive position and posits anti-choice ideology as favorable.

This perceived favorability runs deep and has very real implications for pregnant people. For example, politicians and activists alike jumped at the chance to essentially redefine dilation and extraction (a surgical procedure used in later abortions) as “partial birth abortion” (and sometimes, “dismemberment abortion”). It’s an obvious misnomer and a dangerous conflation, as one cannot be born and aborted; that would be murder, not abortion. As a result, the procedure was banned without a health exception, courtesy of the 2003 federal Partial Birth Abortion Act. And there’s no ignoring the current onslaught of anti-choice legislation with catchy names like the “Women’s Public Health and Safety Act,” the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” and the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Let’s be honest: These bills are not about protecting women’s health or safety. Their sole purpose is to demean women by prioritizing unviable fetuses over women’s very real health-care needs. And they’re successful in part due to their phrasing: The words “child,” “survivor,” and “protection” all evoke positive imagery, while simultaneously (and not so subtly) vilifying the person who no longer wishes to be pregnant.

To be fair, anti-choicers aren’t the only ones with a working knowledge of the power of language. The pro-choice community has made serious efforts in recent years to reclaim the word “abortion” and paint it as a positive (or at the very least, common) experience. Just look at 1 in 3 Campaign’s Abortion Speakout, the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign, and websites that curate positive abortion stories, and you’ll see a plethora of women embracing this shared reality. And it’s not just grassroots activists who have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet: Developers recently created a Google extension to change all “pro-life” mentions to “anti-choice.” Take that, anti-choice interwebs!

There have been efforts to move away from the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” altogether, because those simple labels don’t reflect a truly intersectional approach that goes beyond the traditional narrative around reproductive rights. I continue to identify as pro-choice because the term works for me. I believe it accurately expresses my support of the full spectrum of choice—parenting, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion—though I also understand and support activists’ rejection of the label.

As a pro-choice activist, I am heartened by these efforts and the ground gained. For so long, we’ve been on the defensive, from fighting stereotypes that pro-choicers can’t be parents to furiously trying to keep clinics open nationwide (and it doesn’t help that the mainstream media often fails to responsibly or fairly report on abortion). It’s been like trying to climb a steep hill covered in oil slicks.

But no longer. Thanks to the campaigns I’ve mentioned and others like them, pro-choicers everywhere—myself included—can more easily reclaim the power of language to shatter stigma surrounding abortion.

While I don’t pretend to have a new dictionary for those of us who work to support abortion rights, there are simple ways to leverage the words already in our lexicon to achieve success on this front. For starters, we can refuse to use the term “pro-life” in exchange for a more accurate description of the movement fighting to end access to a basic health service: “anti-choice.” We can also explicitly describe abortion as mainstream health care more consistently; doing so helps dispel the myth that abortion is rare, immoral, and a marginalized component of women’s health. And finally, we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace being called “pro-abortion.”

Why? Because “abortion” is by no means a dirty word—or thing, for that matter. I will happily embrace being called “pro-abortion.” Admittedly, the term is problematic when it’s used to suggest that all pregnancies should end in abortion or used to simplify reproductive justice and human rights issues. For me, pro-abortion means hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy. And I’m most definitely in favor of all of those things.

I’d like to think the tables will turn in the very near future: that our courts nationwide will follow the Supreme Court’s lead and affirm the right to abortion without political interference, and that people will no longer be shamed for seeking abortion care. Until then, it’s paramount that each and every individual of the pro-choice community continues to demand progress. And what better way than with powerfully pro-choice and pro-abortion words? They’re the building blocks of our movement, after all.

News Politics

Defying House Procedures, Blackburn’s Delayed Redactions Prompt Ongoing Concerns for Researchers

Christine Grimaldi

“My life is at greater risk now than it was before,” one researcher told Rewire. “It’s always something that you think about when you get involved in this type of research, but definitely, Marsha Blackburn doing all this has placed all of us at increased risk.”

This is the first article in a two-part series on the effect Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives is having on the research community. You can read the second piece in the series here.

Researchers who have used fetal tissue in their work had one of their worst fears confirmed earlier this month when documents released by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) disclosed their identities—and jeopardized their privacy, safety, and job security—in her call for a federal abortion inquiry.

At least one of the researchers didn’t know about Blackburn’s U.S. House of Representatives investigation based on widely discredited allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations, let alone that publicly available documents had revealed the individual’s identity, until Rewire made contact. The researcher agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity.

“I found it upsetting,” the researcher said. “The researchers themselves are not accused of any wrongdoing.”

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The researcher expressed apprehension about intrusions from anti-choice groups and the media into what has otherwise been life as a private citizen. Potential consequences on current and future employment marked additional matters of concern, even though research involving fetal tissue is legal and heavily regulated.

Rewire attempted to contact 11 of the at least 14 researchers identified in documents Blackburn included as part of her request for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a separate federal investigation. The documents failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information despite past assurances. Some of the phone numbers were still operational; in other instances, an email address was a simple internet search away. Only two researchers returned requests for comment.

Eugene Gu, another researcher named in the documents, agreed to speak on the record. At the end of March, Blackburn subpoenaed Gu’s company, Ganogen, Inc., which uses fetal tissue to research organ transplantation, for a dozen different types of documents. Gu didn’t know about the investigation until STAT, a health and medicine publication, contacted him for an article.

Two U.S. Marshals in April knocked on Gu’s apartment door to deliver the subpoena in what he described to Rewire as a “scary experience.” Since that time, Ganogen has allegedly experienced a marked uptick in anti-choice harassment that Gu initially didn’t realize stemmed from the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives posting the subpoena to the investigation’s website.

“About once a week, I get an email saying that [you’re] killing babies,” along with threats about God’s wrath, he said.

Gu worries that the latest disclosures could make a bad situation worse.

“My life is at greater risk now than it was before,” Gu said. “It’s always something that you think about when you get involved in this type of research, but definitely, Marsha Blackburn doing all this has placed all of us at increased risk.”

Redactions Take Days to Occur

The risk escalated over 48 hours.

Blackburn first gave the documents to Fox News for an exclusive segment that aired May 31, then released a statement the next day linking to more than 80 pages of records accompanying each letter to HHS. Rewire emailed the select panel within hours of Blackburn’s June 1 statement to ask why certain names had not been redacted, as previously promised, and again the morning of June 3 after failing to receive a response.

By mid-day June 3, the New York Times published a condemnation of the select panel’s actions and later linked to Rewire’s reporting. That afternoon, Blackburn’s spokesperson called Rewire and attributed the disclosures to staff error.

The unredacted versions of the documents remained available through at least June 6 at the links sent to reporters in Blackburn’s original statement. The links are no longer active.

Blackburn initially eschewed questions about why she needed the names of individuals from abortion clinics, procurement companies, and laboratories in the first place.

“Madam Chair, will you explain how the names of individual medical or graduate students, researchers, health care providers, and clinic personnel are pertinent to this investigation?” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) asked Blackburn during the panel’s March hearing, which compared fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation.

“No, sir, I am not going to do that,” Blackburn said.

Weeks later, in April, Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson told Rewire that the names would provide a full understanding of what goes into fetal tissue transactions and research. Investigators proposed using pseudonyms to prevent the names of lower-level staff witnesses from appearing in public or in committee publications, the spokesperson said. That same month, Blackburn pledged the panel would “act responsibly with each and every name” in an interview with the conservative Daily Signal.

Blackburn released the researchers’ names amid unprecedented violence directly connected to the deceptively edited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos purporting an illicit trade in fetal tissue. Anti-choice activists who could be monitoring the panel’s activities were just a click away from obtaining researchers’ names and more details.

The possibility is all the more concerning in the context of Blackburn’s June 10 remarks at the faith-based Road to Majority conference. Blackburn issued a conservative call to action, urging the audience to get involved with the investigation into the trafficking of “baby body parts” through the panel’s mailing list—and publicly available documents on the website.

Panel Defies Normal Committee Procedures

A senior House Democratic aide characterized errors of this magnitude as “highly, highly irregular.”

U.S. Senate rules generally preclude committees from releasing materials without a vote or both sides agreeing to do so, the aide said. On the House side, the aide said, each committee follows its own practices, though that doesn’t mean a lesser commitment to privacy.

“All of the House committees recognize that when there is a privacy interest, or in this case, a safety issue, that certainly the information should be safeguarded,” the aide said. “There are routine ways that they safeguard information.”

For example, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) set up a separate viewing room for the CMP videos. Lawmakers had to reserve a time with the committee’s clerk in order to view the videos on the one computer allotted to the majority and the other to the minority, according to a 12-point list of instructions and protections. The committee otherwise stored the original materials in its safe.

The list concluded with a warning: “Members and congressional staff are advised that parties depicted in the materials have expressed privacy and safety concerns regarding the public release of information that may identify them.”

A comparable error occurred in October 2015 when Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), chair of the House’s high-profile Benghazi investigation, accidentally disclosed the name of someone he erroneously claimed was a CIA source on the select committee’s website. After several news outlets reported on the error, Gowdy’s staff redacted the name “almost instantaneously,” to the best of the aide’s recollection.

Not so with Blackburn’s select panel, leading the House aide to cast doubt on the process.

“I can’t judge intent, but it seems almost designed to get the information out there rather than actually protect it,” the aide said.

Blackburn’s select panel did not respond for comment by publication time.

Even now, clues about the researchers’ identities remain embedded in the redacted documents. Staff failed to black out the institution names, an institution’s department, and the types of fetal tissue specimens that individual researchers used in their work. Elsewhere, staff redacted the names, but not the job titles, of several high-ranking officials at Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Such descriptions run counter to standard operating procedure in the House, according to the Democratic aide. Most committees would redact any information that could lead an outsider to figure out the redacted individual’s identity, the aide said. Typically one side consults with the other prior to posting documents with sensitive information on the web, the aide added.

In any event, the researchers’ names are still publicly available from another source—CMP. David Daleiden’s anti-choice front group last year posted unredacted versions of the documents, raising questions about CMP’s relationship with Blackburn and the select panel.