On Friday, December 12, the Vatican released a document on bioethics,Dignitas Personae (Dignity of the Person), which showed howthe
Catholic hierarchy is once again on the wrong side of science and the
needs of contemporary society. While there was little new in the
statement, the document reconfirmed the Vatican’s condemnation of
artificial reproductive technologies and also said human cloning,
designer babies and embryonic stem-cell research are all immoral. It
remains difficult to reconcile the Vatican’s self-avowed prolife
approach with the rejection of in-vitro fertilization and embryo
freezing, not to mention the condemnation of the potential of stem-cell
research. As our scientists use ground-breaking technology to find
treatments to diseases that have endured for centuries, they need our
support, not the condemnation put forth by the Vatican.
We know that Catholics are as likely to suffer from fertility
problems as is the rest of the population and they should have the
support of their hierarchy as they pursue parenthood. Catholics also
understand the potential of embryonic stem-cell research, and support
it in large numbers. A poll we carried out during the summer found that
almost seven in ten Catholics in the US favor stem-cell research with
early human embryos (69 percent). A similar number support decoupling
science from religion, rejecting the Catholic hierarchy’s attempts to
influence scientific endeavor. An even larger proportion (73 percent)
say they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation
to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend. This may be an issue
during the coming administration if Congress is asked to vote on
whether to extend federal funding for such vital research.
It is true that the Catholic hierarchy has had a long and public
battle with science and scientists over the centuries. What’s perhaps
less well known is the fact that despite these battles, various
elements of the Catholic church have a long and well respected
reputation for supporting scientific endeavor. Church teachings not only allow but encourage adherents to the Catholic faith to support and promote scientific discovery. We
need that aspect of the church to step forward now, and show the world
that Catholicism and scientific progress can work in harmony to help
develop the cures we need to deal with disease and infertility.
A famous Catholic scientist, John Rock, had some sage words for the
Catholic bishops. Rock, who was the co-inventor of the contraceptive
pill, received a letter from an angry conservative. "You should be
afraid to meet your Maker," she wrote soon after the pill was approved.
"My dear madam," Rock replied, "in my faith, we are taught that the
Lord is with us always. When my time comes, there will be no need for
introductions." Rock was also a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization and
the freezing of sperm cells, and was the first to extract an intact
fertilized egg. Here clearly was a man who did much to promote life and
the dignity of the individual. Now that is something that all good
Catholics can support.
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In El Salvador, Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide after experiencing an obstetrical emergency. She is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial.
In November 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera unexpectedly went into labor, giving birth in the latrine of her home. The birth was dangerous and unattended by any medical professionals; the fetus died. Like many women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera’s medical crisis led to her being charged with and convicted of aggravated homicide; she was sentenced in 2012 to 40 years in prison.
Rivera’s sentence is the most extreme of “Las 17,” a group of women who have been imprisoned after obstetrical emergencies. Now, she is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial. If the judge rules in her favor, she will be freed from prison. Advocates say that her case could influence public sentiment about other similar cases around the country.
With the support of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, a Salvadoran feminist organization, Rivera has been fighting her case for several years, as reported earlier in Rewire. Along with the rest of Las 17, she requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government in 2014, but her request was denied.
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“Rivera represents the maximum will of the state to criminalize women in this country,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire. “Her sentence is the longest of any of the women with similar convictions; at 40 years, it is practically a life sentence.”
Fortunate To Be Alive
Maria Teresa Rivera, who shared her story on camera from prison in 2013, was a 28-year-old factory worker in 2011. She was living with her young son and his grandparents, her ex in-laws, in a very modest home in the outskirts of San Salvador. Rivera, the sole provider for the family, supplemented her factory work with house-cleaning in order to pay $13 a month to keep her son in a neighborhood Catholic school and purchase his asthma medication.
One night, according to court documents, Rivera said she awoke with intense thirst. But when she arose from her bed, she felt dizzy and then fainted. When she regained consciousness, she felt a strong urge to defecate and went to the latrine outside the house. As she sat in the latrine, she had intense cramping and “felt as if a little ball fell from her body.” Then she fainted and fell to the ground, where her mother-in-law found her in a pool of blood and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. No one at the scene—family or paramedics—reported hearing any sounds of a baby, and no one realized she had given birth.
Rivera told doctors, attorneys, and others that did not know she was pregnant. She had been experiencing bleeding during the time of the pregnancy, which she interpreted as her menstrual cycle. Neither she nor any friends, relatives, or co-workers noted any physical changes that would indicate a pregnancy. She had also had two doctor visits for other complaints during those months, and no doctor had diagnosed her pregnancy. According to her own estimations, the last sexual contact she’d had that could have resulted in pregnancy had been six months earlier.
She arrived at the hospital in a severe state of shock from extreme blood loss, fortunate to still be alive. Doctors told her she had given birth and wanted to know where the baby was. Medical personnel contacted police, who went to her home to locate the deceased fetus. Rivera was detained by police at the hospital and has been imprisoned since that time.
Interrogation While Hospitalized
Multiple national and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with numerous medical, legal, human rights, and academic experts, have analyzed Rivera’s case in the years since her conviction. Harvard University sociologist Jocelyn Viterna and Salvadoran lawyer Jose Santos Guardado Bautista, for example, used parts of Rivera’s story and court documents in their 2014 analysis of systematic gender discrimination toward Las 17 within the judicial system.
Viterna and Bautista noted, for example, that the only witness testimony the judge considered credible was a supervisor from human resources at the factory where Rivera worked. Contrary to Rivera’s testimony, the supervisor testified that Rivera asked for time off for doctor appointments in January 2011 because she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow testimony from neighbors and friends who stated that they had never seen Rivera show any signs of pregnancy.
“Had Maria Teresa truly reported a pregnancy to her employer in January of 2011, she would have been 11 months pregnant when the birth occurred in November,” Viterna and Bautista observed. “This testimony is nothing short of preposterous. Nevertheless, this is the only witness testimony that the judge deems ‘credible’ in the final sentencing.”
According to Viterna and Bautista’s report, “The judge admitted that there was no evidence that Maria Teresa had done anything to hurt her baby. The judge also admitted that there was no evidence of any motive for why she would want to kill her baby.” However, he still convicted her of aggravated homicide.
A 2015 resolution from the Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría Para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH in Spanish), which provided a formal opinion on violations of Rivera’s human rights, supports Viterna and Bautista’s findings.
The PDDH resolution observed that Rivera faced a slanted system even before she got to court:
At the First of May Hospital where Rivera was taken, the criminal investigation was prioritized over her right to health. She was subjected to interrogation when she was still in Intensive Care and without legal representation. In addition, the medical personnel did not seek information about her health history; they limited themselves to examining the birth canal, carrying out the extraction of the remaining placenta, and discharging her the following day, without attending to her overall health.
Both the PDDH and Viterna-Bautista reports noted that the judge relied on shoddy, unscientific evidence to convict Rivera. According to court records, the autopsy report for the fetus said its cause of death was “perinatal asphyxia.”
“It is perhaps worth reiterating that there were no signs of trauma on the [fetus], either externally or internally. It is perhaps worth reiterating that, despite the judge’s conclusion that the [fetus] died from suffocating within the latrine, the fetal lungs were clean with no sign of fecal matter or other materials inside them. Rather, the autopsy concluded that the [fetus] died of a medical condition—perinatal asphyxiation—that could have occurred before, during, or after the birth. Clearly, there is no evidence in these documents proving homicide,” Viterna and Bautista wrote. “Perinatal asphyxiation,” they said, “is a medical condition.”
Still, the judge interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act. He also ignored the portion of the autopsy report stating that the umbilical cord could have been separated by its fall into the latrine. As quoted by the PDDH resolution, he wrote:
There is no doubt that the baby was born alive and was full-term and that the detached umbilical cord was cut by the mother …. This judge does not give credibility to what the accused says when she states she did not know she was pregnant …. She knew she was pregnant and that brought with it the obligation to care for and protect this young person she carried in her womb. In this sense, the fact that she went to the latrine, she did it with the intention of violently expelling [it] so that inside the latrine there would be no opportunity to breathe and in that way cause its death and then be able to say it was a [spontaneous] abortion.”
The judge also based his conviction, the PDDH resolution said, on the results of a DNA test showing the fetus was genetically related to Rivera.
“No evidence was introduced to show that Rivera had taken any intentional action to cause the death,” the PDDH resolution concluded.
Convicted by Patriarchy
Rivera’s legal representatives will likely use many of these inconsistencies as evidence for procedural judicial error in court this week. A favorable outcome in her trial can represent a significant step forward for women’s human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador. The country’s 1997 absolute ban on abortion, along with a 1998 constitutional modification to declare that life begins at conception, created the social, cultural, and legal environment that has justified courts sending women such as Rivera to prison for documented obstetrical emergencies, not even attempted abortion. According to the global organization Ipas, more than 600 women were incarcerated between 1998 and 2013 under the abortion law.
As the PDDH resolution noted, “in El Salvador, there exists a culture of the promotion of motherhood as the only form of self-realization for women, and the creation of the binomial ‘woman-mother,’ which locates women as instinctive and not rational. This imposes upon women [duties of] sacrifice, abnegation, and the prioritization of children over their own human conditions, behaviors that are not demanded in equal proportions from men.
“Women find themselves with a social expectation to comply with the role ‘woman-mother,’ even in the health system where women should be assured of conditions free of discrimination and obstetric violence,” it continued.
Advocates and researchers have argued that this sexist framework contributed to Rivera’s conviction. As Viterna and Bautista wrote, the trial judge claimed that Rivera “‘decided to carry out her criminal plan within the area of her household, looking for a moment during which there weren’t any other persons around to carry out this homicide,’ as if a woman has complete control over when, where and how her body will give birth.”
The PDDH concluded that “the judge convicted Rivera under subjective criteria with a heavily sexist ideology,” saying that Rivera’s rights to the presumption of innocence were overruled by such an ideology, unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.
Rivera’s case, along with that of Carmen Guadalupe Vazquez (who was one of Las 17 granted a pardon in 2015 when the Salvadoran Supreme Court recognized judicial errors in her case), is representative of a consistent pattern toward this group of women that the Agrupación has been documenting.
“Correcting these judicial errors is very important, first of all for Rivera and her young son, so that she can go free, but also for all the other women in similar circumstances. It’s also necessary for those who work for justice in this country, particularly women’s reproductive justice, to see that the work has concrete results,” Herrera said.
Herrera hopes that a positive outcome will continue to make visible this pattern of judicial error and “move other cases [of Las 17] forward more rapidly and bring greater justice to the judicial system.”
According to IThe Agrupación is currently representing more than 25 women imprisoned with similar convictions: the original 17, two of whom received pardons, and others who have entered the system more recently.
“Maria Teresa’s story illustrates the systematic ways that women’s rights are violated: the right to health, the right to privacy in one’s life, the right to doctor-patient confidentiality, along with all the judicial procedural rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Herrera said in an interview with Rewire.
“The judicial system in El Salvador is the part of the state that has changed least since the signing of the 1992 peace accords” that ended the Salvadoran civil war, Herrera said. “Not just in how it deals with women, but how little sensitivity it demonstrates overall with regard to human rights.”
It is the job of the media to help inform the public by providing information that is accurate, fair, and thorough, and neither misinforms nor oversimplifies. Unfortunately the media too often fails at its job, and in this case NPR did too.
Today I did what I do virtually every morning: Got up early, turned on the radio for Morning Edition, made a pot of coffee, and started my work day.
I listen to NPR every day, and with a close ear. As president of a media organization focused on evidence-based reporting, I am highly attuned to misrepresentations of the issues on which we work, the daily mistakes made by reporters and commenters, and the biases and false equivalencies that underlie much of the reporting I hear and read on our issues, even by venerable national news organizations like NPR.
This morning was no different, though it started out with a surprise. During an NPR segment on the most recent attack on Planned Parenthood by an anti-choice group known ironically as the Center for Medical Progress (CMP)—the “progress” they seek would rob millions of women of primary preventive care—reporter Jennifer Ludden did a masterful job of reporting facts about the videos circulated by CMP. And she did so without equivocation.
Unfortunately, this excellent segment was immediately followed by another on fetal tissue research, during which both the reporter and his producers seemed to try to cram as much misinformation and confusion into a four-minute piece as possible.
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The close juxtaposition of these two segments reveals the gap between good, thoughtful, and accurate reporting on issues like abortion, and reporting based on sources who use spurious “scientific” information, questionable “evidence,” and innuendo to make a case based on their own political agenda. It is the job of the media to help inform the public by providing information that is accurate, fair, and thorough, and neither misinforms nor oversimplifies. Unfortunately the media too often fails at its job, and in this case NPR did too.
In the first segment, Ludden spoke with Morning Edition host David Greene, who introduced the story by pointing out that the videos used to attack Planned Parenthood had been “heavily edited.” This in itself was critical. The fact that the videos were heavily edited and potentially deceptive became clear within 24 hours of their initial release. First, the timestamps on the edited version did not match up properly, making it unclear who was speaking about what and in answer to which question—a big red flag. Second, a longer version of that first video and a transcript released later that day revealed that not only did the transcript not match what had been portrayed in the short video, but that the claims about Planned Parenthood made by CMP were not at all supported by the videos themselves. Third, they were released by a group linked to some of the most vicious anti-choice operatives in this country, including Live Action and Operation Rescue. Much of the media could not be bothered with checking the integrity of these videos nor that of the source from which they came. Many outlets just reported the claims as if they came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not an anti-choice front group. Once upon a time, it was safe to assume that credible journalists checked their facts and their sources before publishing a story based on defamation of an organization on serious charges, but in this case like many others today, most media outlets just skipped over that step to report on what are now clearly baseless claims made by CMP.
In speaking to Greene about the videos, Ludden immediately noted that CMP is funded by some of the largest anti-choice donors in the country. This put the discussion in context, because the anti-choice movement has created false assertions, one after another, about medical, scientific, and public health evidence on abortion and contraception to bolster their efforts to eliminate access to both. In fact, as Rewire has pointed out before, the anti-choice movement has taken a page from the tobacco companies of the past and adapted their strategies for their own purposes, including developing pseudoscience and making false claims, thereby trying to influence public opinion and legislation for purposes not supported by science and antithetical to public health.
Ludden went on to dispassionately explain what the videos contain. She underscored that the videos were taken undercover and without the knowledge of those who were taped (which is a violation of California law). She further noted that the videos were edited to suggest that Planned Parenthood doctors were talking about things they were not and never said, making plain that since the video was edited we can’t be sure what was said to whom and in what context in the course of the actual taped conversations. Ludden also noted twice that numerous experts have found that the videos were not only heavily edited but that the longer version of the videos, the supposedly “full story,” also had been edited to exclude, among other things, Planned Parenthood doctors repeatedly saying that the organization does not profit from fetal tissue research. (Moreover, what CMP initially claimed were the full unedited versions of the videos were actually not, and they have fought to avoid releasing those full unedited versions.) Finally, Ludden clarified—and in doing so fact-checks Carly Fiorina—that the videos misappropriated both personal and stock photos of stillborn fetuses (without permission) to portray them as fetuses post-abortion.
My only complaint about this segment is that Greene and Ludden each misrepresented public opinion on abortion and fetal tissue research by implying a large share of people in the United States are against both. This is simply not true: The majority of Americans support access to safe abortion services and until the recent circus came to town fetal tissue research has long enjoyed bipartisan support. All that said, this segment was far and away one of the best I have heard on this issue.
By contrast, the next segment was based on the kind of false equivalencies that have undermined the integrity of so much of journalism today. In the segment, NPR reporter Rob Stein first interviewed Larry Goldstein, a professor and researcher at the University of California, San Diego who has a long background in fetal tissue research. Goldstein uses fetal cells to create drugs for alzheimer’s disease and to help paralyzed people walk again. Goldstein called fetal cells “vital at this time because, to our knowledge, they have the best properties for the kinds of experiments we need to do.” Stein noted that fetal tissue cells have been used for decades, mentioned their role in helping create vaccines and in many other kinds of medical research. He also interviewed researcher Carrie Wolinetz from the National Institutes of Health, who underscored the importance of fetal tissue in research and said that “fetal tissue is used to study early brain development” because it grows fast, lives a long time, and is incredibly versatile.
Stein then went on, however, to interview David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, who claimed that use of fetal tissue for research is “outdated.” Prentice provided no evidence whatsoever for this claim nor did he point to successful medical advances based on use of his suggested alternatives.
Stein’s choice of Prentice is questionable at best, but far worse is that Stein failed to mention that, as we have previously reported, the Charlotte Lozier Institute was founded in 2011 as the “education and research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List—a Beltway nonprofit that focuses on electing anti-choice politicians to Congress—with the express purpose of upending decades of international research on the role of safe abortion in reducing maternal death and illness. Not surprisingly, CMP’s “parent company,” the SBA List also promotes otherwise unfounded theories that claim, for example, women who have an abortion are at higher risk of poor mental health outcomes. The Charlotte Lozier Institute widely disseminates discredited theories aimed at promoting medically unsound restrictions on abortion, and reportedly spent $11,411 in 2012 seeking out academic and policy experts to provide oral and written testimony in favor of policies that restrict access to legal abortion.
Stein also failed to tell his listeners that Prentice previously spent 20 years at the Family Research Institute, the virulently anti-choice, anti-gay-rights group. Nor does he mention Prentice’s affiliation either with the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, or the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, an organization set up with taxpayer funding by anti-choice Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, and which appears to have no research successes to its name.
Next, Stein interviewed Dr. Kathleen Schmainda, a Professor of Radiology and Professor of Biophysics at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In his preface, Stein said that “Schmainda and numerous others” oppose the use of fetal tissue research, and Schmainda went on to talk about the “abortion industry,” an anti-choice catch phrase. Stein did not mention that Schmainda is closely affiliated with orthodox Catholic groups in Wisconsin, did not mention who the “numerous others” are, and did not mention that the Medical College of Wisconsin itself strongly and publicly opposes legislation proposing to ban fetal tissue research in Wisconsin.
In fact, Dr. John Raymond Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelthat the Medical College opposes the provisions in the draft that would “ban and criminalize the possession and research of federally allowed fetal tissue and fetal-derived cell lines that have been used worldwide for decades.”
“The legislation will result in the loss of jobs, talented scientists and clinicians, and Wisconsin biotechnology companies. Clearly, this legislation will adversely impact the Wisconsin economy,” Raymond said.
Far from the suggestion given in Stein’s piece that there is a large contingent from the Medical College that opposes this research, the official position of the college supports it.
These failures completely biased Stein’s entire report because he offered as experts people who were speaking to critical public health and medical issues from the perspective of their own religious beliefs and political affiliations, not from science and evidence. The listener, however, would not know this and so could easily come away with the impression that Stein spoke to a set of experts with equivalent standing and credentials in the medical community.
This type of false equivalency reporting, with implications and patterns of omission for which reporters, editors, and producers apparently no longer think they bear responsibility, is at its core, bad for public health, bad for science, bad for progress, and bad for democracy. It’s bad journalism. It is also a real and present danger to the millions of women whose health care and rights are at the center of political battles around which careful, factual, and honest reporting is desperately needed.
We need independent news organizations to do their jobs and do them well, or they don’t deserve the public dollars on which they rely. NPR can and should do better now and in the future by emulating the fully fact-based reporting provided by Ludden. Otherwise, it risks damaging the integrity and respect it has built up over so many decades and simultaneously contributing to the deterioration of democratic and evidence-based processes for making public policy.