Anti-Prostitution Pledge Results in Discriminatory Treatment

Melissa Ditmore

Sex workers' health care is often sacrificed on the altar of U.S. funding.

Recently on Rewire, I examined
the damaging effects on sex workers of a new law against prostitution
in Cambodia. The perception on the ground is that the law was passed
so that Cambodia could avoid sanctions associated with the US Traffic
in Persons report. 

This is not the first time
that sex workers have been sacrificed at the altar of US funding. Anti-trafficking
funding and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)
deny funding to any organization that does not have an explicit policy
against prostitution and sex trafficking. Outwardly, this seems innocuous,
but the restriction has been used in ways that seriously undermine public
health and anti-trafficking efforts in the developing world. Denying
services to sex workers is counter-productive in both areas.  

In addition, the terms of the
restriction have been left ambiguous, allowing some self-appointed experts
to act as "police" for the US government in watching aid recipients
for alleged missteps. CHANGE  released an updated policy brief detailing the ways in which sex workers have been
adversely affected by this restriction. 

These self-appointed enforcers
have chosen to ignore the non-discrimination clause in the regulation
that says that no one should be denied services because of the anti-prostitution pledge. In practice,
application of the restriction is often highly discriminatory. Doctors
in Cambodia used the restriction as grounds for denying information
about HIV transmission to men who have sex with men (MSM). Male sex
workers in Thailand have been evicted from the sole clinic in the nation
dedicated to MSM. Drop-in centers for homeless sex workers in Bangladesh
– the only places where some of these women had access to a toilet
– have been closed. 

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Restrictions targeting sex
work have not been the only counter-productive consequence of US policy.
The abstinence earmark in PEPFAR, which requires one-third of prevention
funds to go towards abstinence education, has significantly reduced
condom availability in sub-Saharan Africa. In a bizarre twist, abstinence
programs funded through PEPFAR in Uganda have even conducted public
condom burnings. The percentage of Uganda’s population infected with
HIV had previously been in sharp decline as a result of strong prevention
programs, but that trend seems unlikely to continue now. 

Taking the Pledge is a 13-minute video featuring interviews
with people who have experienced discrimination and the loss of services
and commodities because of US-imposed restrictions. These stories illustrate
why sex workers and their advocates see little cause for celebration
in recent increases in PEPFAR funding. Instead we worry that continued
imposition of ideologically motivated restrictions will bring not benefits,
but further discrimination against sex workers.  

The next administration must
act quickly to repair PEPFAR and anti-trafficking funding policies in order
to assist these vulnerable populations instead of promoting discrimination
against them.

Watch Taking the Pledge:


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News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Crusade Tests ACOG’s Donations to Blackburn

Christine Grimaldi

Republicans' prevailing views on abortion haven’t stopped the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists from contributing to their campaigns for U.S. Congress.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the leader of the congressional crusade to undermine access to abortion care and halt fetal tissue research, received campaign funds from an unlikely donor: the political advocacy arm of the nation’s leading professional association for obstetricians and gynecologists.

Publicly available campaign finance records obtained through the Federal Election Commission reveal that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) donated $2,000 to Blackburn early in the two-year 2016 federal election cycle. ACOG made the contribution through its political action committee (PAC), Ob-GynPAC, on June 30, 2015—several months before the U.S. House of Representatives voted in October to establish the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.

ACOG is the 501(c)(6) affiliate of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the membership association for 57,000 such providers across the country.

ACOG supports access to abortion care based on public health and medical evidence. Any contribution to Blackburn may, at first, appear misplaced. Blackburn, a longtime abortion rights foe, has emerged in recent months as the House’s most outspoken critic of an illicit market in “baby body parts” that according to all other accounts—three prior congressional committees, 13 states, and a Texas grand jury—doesn’t exist.

An ACOG spokesperson, however, stressed that Ob-GynPAC is broader than any one issue.

“The PAC often supports candidates and elected officials whom they disagree with on one issue or another because they work with the PAC on another priority,” the spokesperson told Rewire in an email.

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ACOG priorities overlap with some traditionally in the GOP camp: medical liability and Medicare payment reform, health information technology, and Affordable Care Act’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, a yet-to-be-constituted oversight panel to control Medicare costs. Medical groups generally oppose the advisory board, while anti-choice advocates have framed it as a “death panel.”

“Ob-GynPAC’s goal is to achieve real solutions to the issues facing ACOG members, which happens through bipartisan cooperation,” the spokesperson said.

The vast majority of congressional Republicans outright reject public health and medical evidence on abortion and oppose abortion rights, with the measured exception of retiring Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), who voted in 2015 against defunding Planned Parenthood even as he supports restrictions such as the Hyde Amendment. Hanna received $5,000 from ACOG in the 2016 federal election cycle.

Republicans’ prevailing views on abortion haven’t stopped ACOG from contributing to their campaigns for the House and U.S. Senate.

ACOG split $390,500 almost evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2016 cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Notable exceptions include Rep. Trent Franks (R-AL), the author of misleading legislation to ban sex- and race-selective abortion care, and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), perhaps the most abortion-obsessed lawmaker in Congress. Franks and Smith have not received any money since ACOG became operational in 2010, according to Center for Responsive Politics’ data.

The $2,000 contribution to Blackburn marks a retrenchment, as ACOG first gave a $3,500 campaign contribution in the 2012 election cycle. Blackburn received another $4,000 from ACOG in the 2014 cycle.

Some of Blackburn’s top campaign contributors are from the medical field. The American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the American College of Radiology each gave Blackburn $10,000 in the 2016 federal election cycle, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

Across the aisle, ACOG donated $7,500 each in the 2016 cycle to Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), two of Blackburn’s adversaries on the select panel. Campaign finance records show that Schakowsky, the panel’s top Democrat, received the last $2,500 of that contribution from ACOG on March 31 of this year—several weeks after Republicans drew comparisons between fetal tissue research and Nazi experimentation at the panel’s first hearing.

ACOG defended both abortion care and fetal tissue research in a March 1 letter to Blackburn and Schakowsky and later that month, reiterated support for “life-saving research” in a statement and joint letter with others from the medical, scientific, and academic communities.

Neither the panel, nor the investigation, have ACOG’s support, the group’s spokesperson told Rewire.

In July, 30 progressive and reproductive health-care groups signed a letter in a bid for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to disband the panel.

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