Commentary Human Rights

From Sanger Raids to Fetal-Tissue Research Battles: A Short History of Hypocrisy

Carole Joffe

There's a long tradition of politicians and authority figures railing against reproductive health-care services, yet claiming the right to use them for their own benefit.

In a story that has remarkable relevance for today’s reproductive wars, on March 22, 1929, the New York City Police Department sent an undercover female detective to a birth control clinic run by Margaret Sanger. Detective Anna McNamara received an examination and and was told by the examining physician of several pelvic disorders. Strikingly, even though she had obtained the necessary evidence that the clinic was providing then-illegal birth control services, McNamara returned to the clinic several times for follow-up visits.

Her visits preceded the April 15 police raid that temporarily closed the clinic and resulted in its physicians’ arrests. At her last follow-up visit, McNamara received a contraceptive device from one of the doctors who would soon be arrested.

This story embodies beautifully the contradictions—or more accurately hypocrisies—we have seen over and over again in U.S. society as figures associated with the right try to control women’s sexuality and reproductive behavior. Such hypocrisy has most recently emerged in political scandals and the conservative campaign against fetal tissue research, from which lawmakers themselves have directly or indirectly benefited.

These zealots have historically allowed themselves the behaviors and health-care services they work so hard to deny to others. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), now implicated in a potential affair (which he not very convincingly denies), is only the latest in a seemingly endless list of “family values” politicians discovered to have committed adultery. The numerous instances of anti-choice women who themselves get abortions, often arguing, as clinic workers have reported to me, that “their case is different” (and more deserving) than other abortion patients, are more examples of right-wing hypocrisy. Or take those politicians who ferociously attack Planned Parenthood at every opportunity and consistently vote against funding for family planning programs while diverting funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which do not offer contraception. Yet many, if not most, of these elected officials appear to have average family sizes, strongly suggesting the use of contraception.

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As the recent video sting-inspired campaign against Planned Parenthood escalates into a full-blown witch hunt against fetal tissue researchers, the right-wing zealots’ hypocrisy is exposed once again. Consider the case of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the infamous “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.” Blackburn is leading a campaign of McCarthyite proportions to intimidate fetal tissue researchers, subpoenaing the names not only of researchers in various universities, but of everyone who worked in their labs, including technicians and graduate students. (The unprecedented scope of the committee’s demand for names represents yet another eerie parallel to the 1929 police raid on Sanger’s clinics, in which the police seized patient records.)

It is highly likely that Blackburn’s family and loved ones received the polio vaccine as infants: a vaccine derived thanks to fetal tissue research. The first polio vaccine was introduced in 1955—as Blackburn was born in 1952, it is possible she herself received it as a toddler.

Together, the discovery of the polio vaccine and the subsequent near-eradication of polio globally stand as one of the greatest public health triumphs of modern times. But today research using fetal tissue is imperiled, by Blackburn’s committee’s frightening tactics and by conservative state legislators’ election-year rush to ban tissue donation. Even more disturbingly, six states have banned the conducting of this research altogether.

Ever since the notorious Center for Medical Progress videos were released last summer, this atmosphere of intimidation surrounding fetal tissue research has had an understandably chilling effect on researchers, making them hesitant to publicly defend their work due to fears of violence. Potentially groundbreaking work—on the Zika virus, on diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease—is in jeopardy because the tissue supply is drying up, which can be logically be attributed to the current volatile climate.

There is a direct connection between Anna McNamara and Rep. Blackburn. The detective both sought medical advice from a birth control clinic and helped shut it down. The congresswoman has both benefited from fetal tissue research—from the vaccines her loved ones very likely received—and is now trying to destroy it. (Even if her family members were not vaccinated, they benefited from the protective effect of others’ vaccines, known as “herd immunity”).

Both cases show the conflicts that can arise between individuals’ personal lives and their public ones. We can speculate that Anna McNamara felt she had no choice but to cooperate with her police superiors, given the need to support her family as the Depression approached. Obviously, Blackburn and her Republican colleagues do not need to be pursuing this witch hunt out of economic necessity. Tragically, one can only conclude they perceive their attack on fetal tissue research as political necessity at a time of ever-increasing demands from their right-wing base.

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