Analysis Politics

Campaign Fact-Check: Marsha Blackburn Says She Stopped Nonexistent Sale of ‘Baby Body Parts’ (Updated)

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Twitter called Blackburn's claim an "inflammatory statement." It's also totally false.

UPDATE, October 11, 8:29 a.m.: Twitter has reversed its decision on refusing to run Blackburn’s misleading message as a promoted tweet, Politico reports.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a candidate for U.S. Senate, claimed in a campaign video that she “stopped the sale of baby body parts”—a statement that caused Twitter to refuse to run the video as a promoted Tweet. Blackburn’s claim is not only, as Twitter found, “inflammatory.” It’s completely false.

The Associated Press on Monday reported that Twitter blocked an ad submitted for paid promotion by Blackburn’s Senate campaign. The video contained what Twitter “deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” a representative from the social media site reportedly told the campaign.

Campaign spokesperson Andrea Bozek confirmed the story by phone on Monday. She said the campaign received news of the decision from Twitter that morning.

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Though some conservatives criticized Twitter’s decision to label the video “inflammatory,” Blackburn’s rhetoric echoes language used by Robert Lewis Dear Jr. in his November 2015 shooting spree. Dear killed three and injured nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility in the name of “baby parts.” Blackburn’s and Dear’s rhetoric comes from the anti-choice front group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and its discredited anti-abortion propaganda videos, which falsely alleged Planned Parenthood profited from legal donations of fetal tissue.

A dramatic increase in violence against abortion providers followed the allegations in CMP’s videos. National Abortion Federation’s 2015 statistics confirmed there was a spike in violence, “reflect[ing] a dramatic increase in hate speech and internet harassment, death threats, attempted murder, and murder, which coincided with the release of heavily-edited, misleading, and inflammatory videos beginning in July.”

Twitter did not respond to questions from Rewire about the platform’s objection to Blackburn’s language. Twitter spokesperson Nicholas Pacilio told the Tennessean that the video violated its terms of service. “Twitter provides a platform for its users to share and receive a wide range of ideas and content, and we greatly value and defend our users’ ability to express themselves,” Pacilio said in a statement.

Though Twitter would not run the video as a promoted ad, the video was not blocked from playing on the site. Blackburn’s campaign has promoted it heavily on its own page, asking supporters to join in “standing up to Silicon Valley” by sharing it with their networks. The video had been shared almost 15,000 times as of Tuesday morning.

Just last month Twitter came under fire from an anti-choice group for blocking its ads. According to the Washington Post, the social media platform said it “has clear, transparent rules that all advertisers must follow.”

“Twitter’s extensive advertising policy states that ads must be honest and accurate. The guidelines prohibit advertisers from misleading people with sensationalized language and deceptive claims,” said the Post. “And Twitter bars content that could offend or shock people, among other directives.”

Blackburn’s statement that she had “stopped the sale” of legal fetal tissue donations is as false as the purported illicit market in “baby body parts,” a fact-free assertion pushed by anti-choice activists offering cover to Republican lawmakers who want to strip Planned Parenthood funding. 

When Rewire asked Bozek to specify how Blackburn had, as she claimed, “stopped the sale,” Bozek pointed to the congressperson’s 2016 work on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, now defunct. “If you google Marsha Blackburn, she is on the Select Panel on Infant Lives and she is talking about her work to stop this process by StemExpress,” Bozek said, referring to a procurement company that Blackburn targeted with contempt of Congress charges that never made it to a vote.

To answer a follow-up email requesting to “clarify exactly what policy or action” stopped the so-called sale, Bozek sent a link to Blackburn’s website.

In October 2015, Planned Parenthood Federation of America stopped accepting money to cover expenses related to fetal tissue donations. By that point, StemExpress had terminated its work with Planned Parenthood.

That October, the House voted to create Blackburn’s panel. By the time Blackburn began public hearings in 2016, it had been months since Planned Parenthood halted the payments.

Neither Planned Parenthood nor StemExpress profited from legal donations of fetal tissue, in accordance with federal law that Republicans helped pass in the early 1990s. “We lose money doing this,” StemExpress CEO Cate Dyer told the Washington Post in 2016.

Blackburn’s subsequent $1.59 million congressional “witch hunt” into the false allegations resulted in a final report that largely regurgitated CMP conspiracies and misinformation. The panel did not achieve its twin goals of ending legal abortion and shuttering Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country. Recent GOP-led attempts to “defund” the health-care organization died with the unsuccessful Affordable Care Act repeal bills.

The select panel’s most enduring consequences have been to undermine life-saving fetal tissue research, while endangering the privacy and safety of researchers and reproductive health-care providers alike. Blackburn’s final report detailed the full breadth of the panel’s 15 criminal and regulatory referrals against Planned Parenthood affiliates, abortion care providers, and other targeted entities. The Obama administration didn’t pursue the referrals, but Republicans have resurrected them under the virulently anti-choice Trump administration. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in late April urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue’s pick for the job, to prosecute Planned Parenthood based on a separate baseless investigation his staff conducted in 2016.

Blackburn, in fact, indicated the select panel’s mission focused on process, not outcomes.

“Our job was to find the information, do any referrals needed, and make recommendations, and then we’ll leave it to the authorizing committees,” she told Rewire in January following the conclusion of the panel.

Though the House passed the final report’s recommended 20-week abortion ban, the unconstitutional ban has little-to-no chance of passing the Senate, placing another Blackburn priority out of reach.

Democrats excoriated Blackburn for her “McCarthyesque” tactics, including abusing her unilateral subpoena power. The select panel chair took cues from David Daleiden, the CMP head under indictment in California for his role in the propaganda campaign, even in the final weeks of the investigation. Blackburn and her staff appeared to have a close working relationship with Daleiden throughout that time.

The select panel isn’t Blackburn’s only connection to Daleiden. Financial disclosure forms revealed in April that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway consulted for CMP. Conway also spoke at a May fundraiser for Blackburn. 

Blackburn is reportedly now fundraising off of Twitter’s decision on her campaign ad, suggesting in an email that she is “being censored for telling the truth.” But the facts simply aren’t there to support her claim.

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