Commentary Media

NY Post’s Shameful AIDS Coverage

Regan Hofmann

I'm appalled by a heinously reported piece in the New York Post that uses HIV as a salacious hook to a story that is not--and should not--be about HIV.

This article is cross-posted with permission from POZ.

I’m appalled by a heinously reported piece in the New York Post that uses HIV as a salacious hook to a story that is not–and should not–be about HIV.

Last week, the New York Post reported that a woman working as a maid in New York’s Sofitel hotel was allegedly sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the world’s most powerful and richest men–a man who also happens to be running the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while running for the French presidency.

The headline for the piece was: “IMF Accuser in Apt. for HIV Vics.” The accompanying cover line was: “Maid HIV Shocker.”

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Talk about burying the lead and misleading the reader.

How about: French Presidential Candidate and Head of IMF Suspect in Sexual Assault Case.

Rather than focus on the purported crime and the man who committed it, the Post used the first nine paragraphs of the story to delve into the woman’s housing situation; a situation that may or may not be an indication of whether (or not) she is living with HIV. The survivor’s lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, claimed on The Today Show that she was “absolutely not” living in housing for people with HIV, as was claimed by the Post.

The woman (whose name has not been released and who is a widow, mother and originally from West Africa) claimed she was viciously attacked and forced to engage in sexual acts against her will. The Post labels her as the “accuser,” the “victim” and an “HIV victim.” Meanwhile the man who purportedly viciously attacked her is referred to by the Post as “the humiliated 62-year old suspect.” Later in the piece, when describing Kahn, who is on suicide watch and being held without bail, the Post said he has been “reduced to wearing shoes without laces and a medical device to make sure he’s breathing.” It seems the editors of the Post have placed their sympathy in the wrong place. I’m not saying he’s guilty. It’s too early to know. But, given that there are theoretically equal degrees of uncertainty about both claims, it seems only fair that the coverage would not defile one person over the other. Unless that person may have HIV and then, well, they must be a bad person, right? Wrong.

I can’t help but wonder if the Post would be as unsympathetic to the female survivor if her HIV status had not been raised. It’s just too easy for them to take a side: the word of a West African immigrant who lives in low income housing who may have HIV versus the word of one of the most influential men in the world. The irony is that she may not have HIV and/or that he may. Who’s to say that he doesn’t have HIV simply because he’s not living in housing for people with HIV? I’m not saying he does; I’m saying that technically it’s a possibility and if she proves to be HIV-negative and has been sexually assaulted, I hope she has been offered counseling and post-exposure prophylaxis (or “PEP”–a 28-day course of antiretroviral HIV medications that, if commenced within 72 hours of potential exposure can prevent a person who may have been exposed to the human immunodeficiency virus from becoming infected).

The question is: Is her HIV status germane to this piece? No.

Unless, of course, you are Kahn’s lawyers looking to discredit her. Then, it might be very important to attach the heavily stigmatized diagnosis of HIV to her. And, by doing so, attempt to render her as a person of “questionable moral character,” as many people erroneously construe people living with HIV.

It may also matter if you are the editor of a newspaper whose sales depend on provocative headlines employing the “sticky factor” of the world’s most arresting words. If your job is to sell the most dead trees possible, you may just make “HIV” part of your headline as often as you can. People do things for two basic reasons: fear, and desire. That’s why “HIV” and “sex” are two words with great power to catch eyeballs. One summons deep and primal fear; the other is synonymous with desire.

The Post‘s coverage makes one thing searingly clear: Anyone who thinks HIV stigma is any less intense or harmful than it has been for years need only to consider this example to see that HIV remains one of the most reviled topics of all time. And that the fact, or even suggestion, of someone’s HIV status remains a powerful tool when trying to discredit their character.

This piece implies that the horror of the idea that this woman may be living with HIV trumps the horror of her assault. That her HIV status is the most important and shocking thing about the case. But how, in 2011, could the notion that someone may be living with HIV be more shocking than what may have happened to her (forced fellatio, sodomy, etc.)?

Even more awful is that this piece posits that though a man may face life in prison for rape–he may have a bigger worry because he may have been exposed to HIV. The first two sentences of the report are, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have more to worry about than a possible prison sentence. The IMF chief’s alleged sex-assault victim lives in a Bronx apartment rented exclusively for adults with HIV or AIDS.”

As we near the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of what we now know to be HIV (June 5, 2011), I am just dismayed that any media vehicle, even those like the Post that are known to be sensational, are still so irresponsible when it comes to reporting about HIV/AIDS.

Since the Post chose to raise the issue of the alleged survivor’s HIV status, why then did it not also discuss the scientific facts about HIV and mention whether or not Kahn has been tested for HIV (or plans to get tested, as it takes a certain amount of time for changes in the body to occur post HIV-transmission to allow for an accurate HIV-test result)?

The piece mentions that “according to the federal Centers for Disease Control: ‘It is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex'” but the piece fails to clarify that statement in any helpful way. There is relatively very low risk of HIV infection when performing or receiving oral sex. For a complete, and completely accurate, explanation of HIV risks associated with oral sex, read the lesson on oral sex at POZ’s sister site, AIDSmeds.

The Post also failed to mention that if she is living with HIV, there is the possibility that she is on antiretroviral medications and if so is 96% less likely to be able to transmit HIV to a sexual partner–a fact reported by the New York Times last week, on May 12.

This coverage is just gross. Shame on you editors at the New York Post. There are 33.3 million people, 1.2 million of them Americans, living with HIV/AIDS on the planet. Many of them will die if they can’t get treatment. Only 6 million people currently have access to care. A big barrier to access to care is HIV-related stigma. By wielding HIV on your pages as you did in this story, you are contributing to a problem that can only be addressed when accurate information is disseminated and people become educated and less fearful about what is, ultimately, nothing more than a disease of the immune system.

I get the editorial instinct to titillate and grab people’s attention. I’m an editor who is tasked with growing my audience. But I believe in doing that by giving people life saving information and debunking dangerous myths and misconceptions around a disease that remains so deeply stigmatized, in part, because of articles like yours on the Kahn case.

Why report on HIV/AIDS housing only to use it to assassinate someone’s character? You’re missing the real story: that services for low-income New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS (including housing) are being cut severely making thousands of people’s lives more unstable and therefore, perilous. I’d love to see the Post have as much sympathy for people who are living with HIV who are at risk of being thrown back into the shelter system or out onto the streets of New York. When this happens, people living with the virus often are unable to take their life saving medications.

As a woman who is living with HIV and who knows first hand the damaging power of HIV stigma, I ask the editors at the New York Post to reconsider your AIDS coverage.

Because if you don’t, millions of trees won’t be the only thing you have a hand in killing.

The National Minority AIDS Council has condemned this piece.

NY-based Housing Works has condemned this piece.

I’m condemning it.

If you choose to join in the backlash, post a comment here and I’ll be sure to pass along your comments to the editors of the New York Post.

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. Her 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.

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 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 inquires 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.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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