Friday, June 18

Fiorina, Fetuses, and Fraud

skepticIt is doubtless understandable that, by the time Carly Fiorina jumped on the conservative / pro-life bandwagon vis a vis Planned Parenthood (PP) and the notorious clandestine videos, she found the conservative / evangelical-Christian right wing already on board. Even so, this is odd company for Fiorina to keep, most especially in light of the fact that, despite conservative evangelicals’ enthusiasm about policing the morals of others, the religious right’s continuing silence on the ethics of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) in editing the videos is all the more puzzling. I mean all the videos – all of which I have watched, and all of whose transcripts I have read -- not just the one alluded to by Christianity Today. So far, I am aware of no religious right spokesperson or organization that has critically examined the ethics of CMP itself. Not Liberty University. Not Fuller Seminary. Not Wheaton College. Not one. I am likewise aware of no faculty person – not one -- from a conservative evangelical seminary or college who has addressed the issue of the flagrantly dishonest editing / nipping / tucking of CMP in producing the finished videos and their transcripts, despite the fact that if a student used such dishonest and tendentious tactics in writing a research paper or thesis, the student would, at the very least, be failed for the paper / thesis and possibly expelled from the institution. So no wonder Fiorina doubled down, in the wake of the debate, on her original allegations about living fetuses, beating hearts, threshing limbs, and brain harvesting: perhaps in anticipation of the Iowa caucuses, she was playing to the conservative evangelical-Christian base, which apparently only cares about issues of “correct” conclusions, not such bourgeois and déclassé and "secularist" matters as intellectual conscience.

File- This April 28, 2015, file photo shows former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina speaking during a business luncheon at the Barley House with New Hampshire Republican lawmakers, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

 Space does not permit, nor do I have the time, to enter into detail by giving specific examples from all the CMP videos and the corresponding transcripts. Besides, that level of detail would be redundant, anyway, because all the videos and transcripts share a common redactory DNA, for all have been edited with the common goal of basically implicating PP and ancillary institutions like StemExpress – about which more shortly – in felonious for-profit trafficking in fetal tissue. A truly in-depth, detailed, and comprehensive viewing of the videos and reading of the transcripts gives the lie to such accusations, an activity that no doubt CMP was counting on to be too time-consuming for most people to engage in. About two months ago, as this is written (18 September 2015), I published a “Skeptics Collection” post in which I quoted from the transcript of an early video – being careful to quote the entire passage in full context, a practice I recommend to the religious right, novel as the concept would undoubtedly be to them. Rather than quote that passage all over again, the entirety of which you can see by following the previous URL, I quote only a representative excerpt (boldface added). The PP speaker is Dr. Deborah Nucatola:

PP: ... [Clinics associated with PP] just want to do it in a way that is not perceived as, ‘This clinic is selling tissue, this clinic is making money off of this.’ I know in the Planned Parenthood world they’re very very sensitive to that. And before an affiliate is gonna do that, they need to, obviously, they’re not—some might do it for free—but they want to come to a number that doesn’t look like they’re making money. They want to come to a number that looks like it is a reasonable number for the effort that is allotted on their part. … 
Buyer: Okay, so, when you are, or the affiliate is determining what that monetary—so that it doesn’t create, raising a question of this is what it’s about, this is the main—what price range, would you—?
PP: You know, I would throw a number out, I would say it’s probably anywhere from $30 to $100 [per specimen], depending on the facility and what’s involved. It just has to do with space issues, are you sending someone there who’s going to be doing everything, is there shipping involved, is somebody gonna have to take it out.


Without further commentary, the above exchange makes it obvious that both PP and its associated clinics are scrupulous about avoiding so much as the appearance (" ... not perceived as ... doesn't look like ...") of deriving a profit from fetal tissue, being concerned only with reimbursement for storage, preservation, and transport, i.e., "break even" expenses. (One would think the religious right would praise PP for its adherence to St. Paul's admonition in I Thess. 5:22 to "abstain from all appearance of evil". But, of course, no joy!) It occurs to me that, if PP had performed these services free-gratis, that the associated cost would have had to be absorbed indirectly by the Federal subsidies for PP -- which would also give pro-life critics ammunition to use against PP. So when conservative Christians' long knives come out, PP would probably be criticized for not requesting reimbursement, just as they are criticized now for requesting it. Either way, PP cannot win.  Catch 22 -- an instance of the late Dorothy Parker's maxim "No good deed ever goes unpunished".

Speaking of reimbursing "client" clinics brings us to the subject of the role of such clinics in the acquisition of fetal tissue. This is yet another instance where no one -- literally no one -- from the religious right, or in the pro-life community generally, has responded to a simple question I first asked in response to the Christianity Today article. Maybe I will have better luck this time. Again, without indulging in pointless redundancy, I will repeat my original question just vis a vis the notorious StemExpress brochure, to which Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today points as the alleged smoking gun. But the "smoking gun" becomes "smoke and mirrors" if one asks the following simple question:  If StemExpress or any other "client" clinic were engaged in felonious for-profit trafficking in fetal tissue, why would they advertise such criminally prosecutable activity in a publicly distributed brochure? (There is a reason why President Nixon's "Plumbers" broke into Democratic Party headquarters in the dead of night ... and did not call ahead or buy a full-page ad declaring their intent in the Washington Post beforehand.) With due apologies for expanding the physical size of this post, I present to you here the ostensibly infamous StemExpress brochure:

Naturally, the religious right seized on this brochure, pointing to phrases like "fiscally rewards", "financial profits", and "financial benefits", all of which phrases in context -- listen up, religious right! -- refer to the overall financial solvency of the clinic, not to the for-profit collection of fetal tissue. It is both disingenuous and dishonest to construe the text otherwise, in the case of StemExpress or any other such clinic. And before one can responsibly assert that such phrases are mere "code" for "make a ton of money from babies' brains", one needs evidence of such -- which neither the pro-life movement nor the religious right, least of all CMP, have thus far deigned to provide.

But what of the tabloid-like image of a fully formed baby lying on a table, waving its arms, kicking, and screaming just before its brain is resected?  Well, it turns out that this, too, is pretty much forensic cotton candy:  when you bite into it, it just melts away. "Bit[ing] into it", in this case, means attempting to determine the provenance of the alleged video image of a live fetus just before the alleged excision of the brain. In the process of investigating this image, one gets lost in a welter of stock video -- some taken in PP facilities, much in other facilities like the Center for Bioethical Reform -- none of which matches Fiorina's description of the contents of the alleged PP video about a doctor ordering a technician to excise the brain of a living fetus. Even listing, let alone describing, the myriad constituent isolated images and video sequences, is a hopeless task. (Again, there is not sufficient time or space to enter into the byzantine complexity of issues relating to the "pedigree" of the multitudes of videos and still images surrounding this issue.  If you have the time and the inclination, I would suggest that you delve into the Vox account of these data and their interrelationships, including all the ancillary URLs leading off from the main Vox story.) The Federalist did recently publish a story alleging that the video to which Fiorina alluded was real, and even included the related video URL.  But even the generally sympathetic Federalist account concedes that (boldface in original)

In the video in question, a technician is talking about harvesting the brain of an alive, fully formed fetus. While she tells her story, there is footage of another baby of roughly the same gestational age as the one whose brain she “harvested”.

In other words, even the Federalist spin on Fiorina's allegation acknowledges that she was referring to a pastiche. Besides, what I find most curious about the Federalist story is that neither Fiorina nor anyone on her campaign staff cited this account -- perhaps did not even know about it -- when asked to substantiate Fiorina's statements in the debate. This is like murder detectives ignoring a smoking gun with the prime suspect's fingerprints on it:  either the purported evidence is flawed, or the detectives themselves are incompetent.  Even in his recent LA Times op-ed piece generally sympathetic to FIorina, National Review writer Jonah Goldberg interrupts his byzantine rationalization long enough to acknowledge that

Fiorina's description of what takes place in the videos has come under withering attack. Sarah Kliff of labels Fiorina's version of the scene as "pure fiction." Politifact says it is "mostly false." And they have a point. The exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos.

Suffice to say that my conclusion after watching hours of often gruesome, but not apparently criminal, tissue-collection still images and videos:  Fiorina's scenario is the verbal distillation, not of an actual specific, discrete incident, but of a pastiche, a mulligan stew, of disparate imagery, both still and video, none of which comports with Fiorina's debate allegations. In contemporary language, Fiorina's alleged brain-harvesting video is a "mash-up", but not even an actual, physical videographic mash-up, but a mash-up twice over: a "virtual" videographic mash-up converted to a mash-up comprising words and text.  Bottom line:  contra Fiorina, there is no single, specific, discrete, continuous video of a fetus threshing about on a table while a supervising doctor, presumably in voice-over, orders a technician to collect the brain. It is the Fiorin-ian equivalent of Palin-esque "death panels", and Politifact's evaluation of "Mostly False" is vindicated.

Not that any of the above will mitigate the zeal of the religious right, which has adopted the same methodology toward PP and fetal-tissue collection that it adopts toward issues like gay marriage and evolution:  conclusions first, with evidence strictly optional. The problem is not that the religious right is committed to this methodology, but that most prominent members of a major political party -- which has a decent shot at producing the next President of the United States -- have adopted it, as well.

 James R. Cowles




  • I’m reading Christianity and Politics. It is a history of the political movement through the locus of Christianity. Machiavelli correctly described the movement of religious affiliation to national affiliation and then coupled it with the idea of the ends justifies the means. It just struck me that the religious right is pulling the Machiavellian ideal of nation + the Luther ideal of unsullied Christianity into a twisted version of governance and religion.

    • Which is what you would expect, given the Augustinian roots of conservative evangelical Protestantism. (Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk.) Real “hardshell” conservative evangelical Protestants, so well represented by & in “Christianity Today”, harbor a (usually, though not always) clandestine aspiration to replace the Constitution with the Bible. (Their interpretation, of course, and good luck getting them to acknowledge that there is more than one.) IOW they want to actually implement what Augustine wrote of in “The City of God”: the subordination of the secular state to the Church. (Again, their Church / denomination, of course!) This is why I say it is ironic that conservative evangelical Protestants dislocate their shoulder waving the American Flag while, with the other hand, seeking to subvert the American Constitution. Also consider the irony of Ben Carson pointing to MUSLIMS as being subversive of constitutional government … Mr. Pot, may I introduce Mr. Kettle.

      • Yes, I know Luther was Augustinian. But Luther took it a step further than Augustine by separating the church from the state so completely (I am NOT arguing for integrated church and state) that a strong nation-state had to stand and take on all the political qualities that the purified “sola” church could not, in good conscience, have. Add Machiavelli’s worship of nationhood. Add the building of power bases such as Ferdinand and Isabella subornation of the church to their desires to build Spain. Nationalism becomes “the mystical body.”

        Then, of course, in order to fuse the nation to be The City of God will be an attempt to fuse religious ideals back into the national ideal. However, the entire model is only possible if there is a strong nationalism that is unquestioned and held up as what needs to be protected. “For the good of the state” v “For the good of the people.” With the ideal person being the military soldier. (Tried criticizing the military?)

        Yes, it is all crazy. It is unsustainable. I think Identity Politics will break it down eventually. However, Identity Politics doesn’t really lead to a communal aspect of the common good. There will have to be another movement that leads there.

        • And the supreme, stinging irony is that all this was done in the name of the same Christ whom the Gospels quote as having said “My kingdom is not of this world”.

          The surreal part of this — one of many such — is that, in debates via e-mail and article comments with people (readers and staff) of, e.g., “Christianity Today”, I have asked them the following question “OK … fair enough … you want the Nation to be run according to ‘biblical principles’ … WHOSE VERSION / INTERPRETATION / READING of ‘biblical principles’ do you propose to make normative?” Without a single exception, they all assert that there is universal agreement on what those principles are, and that any differences are only “minor” (their word) differences. When I point out “But there was this thing called the ‘Reformation’ that sparked at least 200 years of religious war in Europe, and it was fought over issues of biblical interpretation”, the answer is again something along the lines of “Well, but that’s because people were not FOLLOWING ‘biblical principles'”. Basically, the conservative evangelical demand for a polity based on “biblical principles” is itself based on a fantasy of a pristine consensus on what those principles are. And they propose dialing back the clock to this vision of a time when there was supposedly a pristine consensus of how the Nation should be run on the basis of an agreement that never existed.

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