Commentary Media

If Money Talks, Anti-Choicers Are Shouting: Crowdsourcing the Gosnell Film

Alex DiBranco

The Kermit Gosnell film raised more than $2 million from 26,574 backers to produce a lurid movie dramatizing the Gosnell trial in what will most likely be anti-abortion propaganda.

Cross-posted with permission from Political Research Associates.

“So far, the biggest ‘crowd funded’ film of all-time is the Veronica Mars movie, a teen detective story that asked for $2.1m and raised $5.7m, we think the Gosnell movie is more important, we think you do too.” So read the Indiegogo fundraising pitch for a project to create a scripted drama “about America’s biggest serial killer, abortionist Kermit Gosnell and the media cover-up.”

While it didn’t break the Veronica Mars record, the campaign did surpass its stated goal before ending Tuesday at $2,241,043. (I’ll confess that one dollar of that total figure is from me—I donated so I wouldn’t miss any updates sent to supporters.) Anti-abortion rights groups such as Personhood USA and Lila Rose’s Live Action helped promote the fundraising campaign while regularly misusing Gosnell’s crimes as an excuse for their agenda to end legal abortion. They aren’t the only ones: This week, the Heritage Foundation and American United for Life (AUL) hosted a discussion (including a speaker from the Charlotte Lozier Institute) for the one-year anniversary of Gosnell’s conviction and promoted a Senate bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Reproductive justice and pro-choice organizations, like the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), have also condemned the doctor, calling for “No more Gosnells.” Yet their approach is to protect—or, in some cases, create—women’s access to safe, legal reproductive care, so that desperation and a lack of options do not force them into the hands of a criminal like Gosnell. These efforts, though, continue to face tough opposition from conservatives. In an action alert sent yesterday, for example, CRR warned that “Senator Lindsey Graham is using the horrific case of rogue abortion provider and convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell to pit a proposed national ban on abortion against the Women’s Health Protection Act.”

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The filmmakers for the project, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer (a married couple), are already right-wing darlings for their anti-environmentalist films, which offer conservative rebuttals to documentaries such as Gasland and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. They also work with a third collaborator, Magdalena Segieda. McElhinney advertises herself as “voted the most popular speaker after Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter at CPAC.” Their films have been promoted by Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the State Policy Network, and they have been funded by Donors Trust/Donors Capital, which funnels money anonymously from right-wing backers.

While anti-abortion themes are not their usual forte, it is unsurprising given the anti-choice “family values” groups supporting the filmmakers.

Gosnell’s ability to prey on vulnerable women by providing cheap, unsafe, and illegal services stemmed in no small part from the continuing lack of access to reproductive care faced by many low-income women, especially women of color, who comprised the majority of his patients. As Carol Joffe writes in Dispatches From the Abortion Wars, clinics like Gosnell’s flourish amid a “a ‘perfect storm’ caused by the marginalization of abortion care from mainstream medicine, the lack of universal health care in the United States, and the particular difficulties facing undocumented immigrants in obtaining health care.” Many liberal and progressive media outlets would agree—and have pointed out—that the mainstream media failed to cover the Gosnell trial adequately: It failed to pay attention to the root systemic causes of race, class, and gender injustice that allowed him to prosper.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect Kermit Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer, to pay attention to such nuance or structural issues, given the conservative filmmakers’ track record and its support from right-wing groups bent on banning abortion from the moment of conception. In fact, anti-abortion films have a long history of using emotional footage to motivate anti-choice political action: films such as Francis Schaffer’s 1974 Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and 1984’s The Silent Scream helped mobilize the U.S. Christian Right movement. More recently, Citizens United has claimed that its 2011 film, The Gift of Life, helped persuade Republican presidential candidates to support making abortion illegal in all cases.

I’ll close by noting a contrast: After Tiller, a recent documentary on doctors who provide later abortions created in the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, raised $11,000 from 176 backers on Kickstarter to produce the film. The Kermit Gosnell film, meanwhile, raised more than $2 million from 26,574 backers to produce a lurid movie dramatizing the Gosnell trial in what will most likely be anti-abortion propaganda. If money talks, the anti-abortion side is shouting.

Analysis Law and Policy

What Monday’s Supreme Court Decision Means in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Monday's decision striking two provisions of Texas' HB 2 doesn't just threaten similar laws nationwide; it could be the basis for finally stemming the onslaught of anti-science abortion restrictions in the states.

Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.

Abortion rights advocates have insisted, since the beginning of the fight over targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, that despite anti-choice lawmakers’ claims to the contrary, the evidence proved these restrictions harmed rather than advanced patient safety. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court finally listened.

Monday’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedtwhich struck as unconstitutional Texas’ requirements in HB 2 that all doctors performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and that all clinics meet the same requirements as stand-alone surgical centers—is not just a win for advocates and patients in Texas. It produced an opinion that has the potential to turn back the seemingly endless wave of restrictions from the states and to reinforce abortion as a fundamental right.

First things first. Whole Woman’s Health is a data-heavy opinion, and there is probably no better justice to pen one than Justice Stephen Breyer. The man seems to live for statistical analysis. He may offer up rambling hypotheticals during oral arguments, but his written opinions are more often than not grounded in data.

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The reason this matters is that both the conservatives on the Roberts Court and their supporters in the Fifth Circuit have tried their damnedest for years to sidestep piles and piles of facts. Such as the fact that in 2013, the year Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed HB 2 into law, the number of Texans who traveled out of state to have an abortion increased to 681, a jump Rewire reported as amounting to more than the previous four years combined. Conservatives also tried to explain away the fact that prior to the implementation of HB 2, there were 41 facilities providing abortion services in the state; by the end of 2013, 16 of those facilities had either stopped providing abortion services or closed altogether. And they tried to manipulate the legal standard governing how courts review abortion restrictions to do so. Justice Breyer, his liberal colleagues, and even noted abortion rights skeptic Justice Anthony Kennedy finally put a stop to all that nonsense. Here’s how.

When upholding the Texas abortion restrictions, the Fifth Circuit relied heavily on a line of reasoning in Gonzales v. Carhartthe 2007 Supreme Court case that upheld the so-called federal partial-birth abortion act. As part of that decision, the Court ruled that when there is a question of scientific or medical uncertainty, legislators could essentially pick a side they agree with and draft laws accordingly. We’ve all witnessed what happened next. Anti-choice lawmakers in the states went bananas concocting abortion restrictions with not much more than a hand-wave that those restrictions were grounded in science and designed to advance patient safety. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took that ruling one step further in the fight over HB 2 and ruled that once legislators announce their justification for an abortion restriction, there was little, if anything, the federal courts could do to second-guess that reasoning.

Not so, the Court ruled Monday. “The statement [by the Fifth Circuit] that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this Court’s case law,” Breyer wrote. “Instead, the Court, when determining the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion procedures, has placed considerable weight upon evidence and argument presented in judicial proceedings” holding that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.”

Justice Breyer put that last part in italics just to drive home that yes, when it comes to the fundamental right to abortion, the federal courts are not simply rubber stamps for state lawmakers.

With that point made clear, Breyer then laid out—basically in a listicle—the number of places the Fifth Circuit got its review of the data wrong as to the effect of admitting privileges on the availability of reproductive care. It’s an impressive list that goes on for pages and includes “[a] collection of at least five peer-reviewed studies on abortion complications in the first trimester, showing that the highest rate of major complications including those complications requiring hospital admission—was less than one-quarter of 1%” as “[e]xpert testimony to the effect that complications rarely require hospital admission, much less immediate transfer to a hospital from an outpatient clinic.”

There’s more, but Breyer summed it up nicely: “In our view, the record contains sufficient evidence that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, or thereabouts. Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times, and increased crowding.”

Moving on to those claims made by attorneys for the State of Texas that the ACS provisions in particular advanced patient safety, Justice Breyer dropped some more data bombs. “Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home,” Breyer wrote.

Colonoscopy, a procedure that typically takes place outside a hospital (or surgical center) setting, has a mortality rate 10 times higher than an abortion. The mortality rate for liposuction, another outpatient procedure, is 28 times higher than the mortality rate for abortion. Medical treatment after an incomplete miscarriage often involves a procedure identical to that involved in a nonmedical abortion, but it often takes place outside a hospital or surgical center. And Texas partly or wholly grandfathers (or waives in whole or in part the surgical-center requirement for) about two-thirds of the facilities to which the surgical-center standards apply. But it neither grandfathers nor provides waivers for any of the facilities that perform abortions.

How good does it feel to hear the Supreme Court call shenanigans on lawmakers who insist the best way to protect the health and safety of patients is by making comprehensive reproductive health care impossible to access? Probably as good as it feels to hear the Supreme Court shut down in the same opinion all the nonsense from abortion rights opponents claiming rogue provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell is proof positive that all abortion providers are dangerous predators that require the kind of regulation advanced in HB 2. “Gosnell’s behavior was terribly wrong. But there is no reason to believe that an extra layer of regulation would have affected that behavior,” Breyer wrote. “Determined wrongdoers, already ignoring existing statutes and safety measures, are unlikely to be convinced to adopt safe practices by a new overlay of regulations. Regardless, Gosnell’s deplorable crimes could escape detection only because his facility went uninspected for more than 15 years.”

Breyer went on: “Pre-existing Texas law already contained numerous detailed regulations covering abortion facilities, including a requirement that facilities be inspected at least annually. The record contains nothing to suggest that H. B. 2 would be more effective than pre-existing Texas law at deterring wrongdoers like Gosnell from criminal behavior.”

And: scene.

Immediately, Monday’s decision means that similar TRAP restrictions in other Fifth Circuit states like Louisiana are likely to be found unconstitutional. In states like Missouri or Kansas, it’s too soon to tell how the decision will affect those kinds of laws, but advocates are no doubt looking into that issue right now given the opening Monday’s decision creates.

And importantly, it makes it much more difficult for anti-abortion lawmakers to advance additional restrictions like “dismemberment bans” without being able to scientifically prove those laws actually advance patient care. These are laws that would effectively criminalize surgical abortions pre-viabilty, and are anti-abortion lawmakers’ latest attempts to cut off access to abortion while claiming to advance patient safety.

This is why Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt has the potential to reach far beyond TRAP laws in the fight for comprehensive reproductive health care. Finally, we’ve got a Supreme Court decision that demands facts over rhetoric and data over belief, and doesn’t fall into the “difficult decision that people disagree on” false equivalence. Monday’s decision is a clear, data-driven defense of the importance of access to comprehensive reproductive health care and an affirmation of abortion as a fundamental right. And that kind of defense has been a long time coming.

Commentary Media

Anti-Choicers Are Trying to Convince Us That Reproductive Care Isn’t a Legitimate Need—and the Media Is Helping

Amanda Marcotte

Two of the major anti-Planned Parenthood talking points, which anti-choicers have disseminated through mainstream media, are about advancing the idea that any sexual health services that aren't about making babies doesn't count as real health care.

This summer, the anti-choice movement clearly had one goal: to see how far it could get in using lies and deceptive rhetoric to convince America that reproductive health care, particularly the service offered by Planned Parenthood, isn’t a real medical need.

This was all kicked off with a lie that got a surprising amount of traction for being a self-evident right-wing fantasy—that Planned Parenthood is somehow profiting off selling fetal body parts. Still, using that deception to try and snooker people into believing reproductive services aren’t legitimate is an enormous undertaking. Nearly all women, including religious conservatives themselves, use the kinds of health care in question: contraception, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, well-woman visits, you name it. Women know for a fact that these things are, indeed, health care. So anti-choicers have concocted a number of lies and confusing rhetorical ploys to try and overcome this well-established fact. And unfortunately, they’ve had some assistance from mainstream media outlets, which too often hesitate to correct right-wing misinformation out of fear of being accused of bias.

Conservative efforts to call into question the necessity of reproductive health care have taken two forms: Deny that there’s any reason women would need access to specialized gynecological care and imply that any gynecological care that is not prenatal care must therefore be “abortion.” (Obviously, abortion is also legitimate health care, but anti-choicers have been denying that for a long time. This is about everything that is not abortion.)

The first point is largely being accomplished by arguing that women don’t need Planned Parenthood because they can go to a “community health center.” In order to bolster this claim, the Susan B. Anthony List is circulating a map of these centers where women can go for alternative health care, a talking point that many legislators have brought up as well.

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Unsurprisingly, it all turns out to be utter nonsense. Community health centers are often already overworked and dumping a bunch of patients seeking gynecological care on them will mean less care for everyone. Jennifer Frost and Kinsey Hasstedt of the Guttmacher Institute dug into this claim even more deeply and found that when it comes to contraception in particular, there is simply no replacing Planned Parenthood:

In 68 percent of counties with a Planned Parenthood site (332 counties out of 491), these sites serve at least half the women obtaining publicly supported contraceptive services from a safety-net health center. And in 21 percent of counties with a Planned Parenthood site (103 counties), Planned Parenthood serves all of the women obtaining publicly supported contraceptive services from a safety-net health center.

Others have pointed out before that defunding Planned Parenthood results in a surge of unintended pregnancies due to unmet contraception needs, and were met with indifferent shrugs by anti-choicers.

It’s clear that anti-choicers aren’t circulating this map of “alternative” clinics—clinics that are usually good clinics, but are often overtaxed and not equipped for the levels of specialized care Planned Parenthood can offer—because they truly want women to get contraception somewhere else. They know women likely won’t be able to. So circulating the map is about creating the facile appearance of concern while actually implying that there’s no need for widespread specialized gynecological care at all: that services meant to allow women to have sex safely without getting pregnant should not be considered health care in the first place.

This is made even more evident by talking point number two: the claim, floated again by the SBA List, that 94 percent of “pregnancy-related” services at Planned Parenthood are abortion. Imani Gandy of Rewire thoroughly debunked this claim, and I recommend reading her takedown in its entirety. In addition to her analysis, what should jump out at you is the hidden premise that SBA List is floating with that statistic, which is that the only legitimate gynecological care for women is “pregnancy-related.” Cancer screenings, STI treatment, well-woman visits, pregnancy prevention, even just treatment for anemia? (Which is one of the things Planned Parenthood treated me for in college.) All of that is considered so unimportant that SBA List couldn’t even bother to take it into consideration. If a woman isn’t currently gestating, she apparently doesn’t even rate as a person deserving health care. Women are treated, openly, like nothing but baby buckets. If you aren’t pregnant, your care doesn’t matter enough to even be counted.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s response to this number was to run a “both sides do it” story debunking the SBA List’s statistical methods, but also arguing that Planned Parenthood was somehow underestimating their abortion services with their standard claim that it’s only 3 percent of what they do. (Gandy challenged the Post’s rebuttal, as well.) It’s a lot of fun with numbers, but what goes unquestioned is the extremely different assumptions bundled with each statistic. By pointing out that abortion is only 3 percent of their services, Planned Parenthood is trying to argue that their preventive services—contraception, STI testing, you know the drill—are legitimate forms of health care. By focusing strictly on abortion, prenatal care, and “adoption referrals,” SBA List is suggesting that non-pregnant women have no legitimate interest in sexual health care. It’s not a story of both sides “fudging the numbers” at all; it’s a very strong difference in opinion over whether the woman who surrounds the uterus is a person with any value beyond making babies.

This kind of false equivalence was also all over a recent episode of the Diane Rehm show, which aimed to broadly cover the various attacks on Planned Parenthood. The episode had anti- and pro-choice voices, but little effort was actually made to weigh the claims of either side against facts. New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes did point out, briefly, that the SBA List’s 94 percent number blatantly ignores the fact that women have sexual health-care needs even when not pregnant, but beyond that, the anti-choice voice, Carol Tobias, was able to push her myths hard without much fear of Rehm pointing out that she was, by an objective and truth-based standard, being deceptive.

For instance, Tobias claimed “the money that would have gone to Planned Parenthood would go to other health service centers that would provide the same care.” But she then went on to argue, “We have thousands of pregnancy centers all over this country who will help women with the pregnancy, with whatever services she needs.” She is almost certainly talking about crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), almost none of which are actual clinics. Most CPCs don’t offer any useful services at all, but simply provide a pregnancy test you could buy at the drugstore and a lecture about how abortion and birth control are evil.

Unfortunately, none of the journalists on the show pointed out that a pamphlet telling you to abstain from sex is not an adequate replacement for actual medical care provided by actual doctors and nurses. Because of this, listeners who don’t know much about the issue might actually walk away thinking there’s nothing Planned Parenthood offers that women can’t readily get elsewhere. Imagine if Tobias was challenged on her nonsense! She might admit to believing that she disapproves of health care for women who want to have sex without getting pregnant. She might admit that she was just trying to bamboozle people by implying that a CPC is anything like an actual medical clinic. Members of the public might have learned that anti-choice activists have an ugly anti-sex agenda way outside of mainstream views. Instead, she went unchallenged, and listeners likely walked away incorrectly believing that these attacks on Planned Parenthood don’t represent the threat to reproductive health care that they actually do.

It’s hard challenging anti-choices lies and anti-choice radicalism. Anti-choicers whine and they fuss about being held accountable to even basic truths, much less being challenged on their values assertions. They lie so often that it’s exhausting just trying to keep up with it all. But audiences deserve to know what’s really going on with this debate over Planned Parenthood, and serving their interests—and serving the truth—means abandoning this attachment to narratives that treat both sides as equivalent, and equally factual, points of view.