Yellow Journalism, Sensationalism, and the Decline of American Reason

The conversation on Facebook started innocently enough, when an old friend posted a link to an article expressing disgust at a recent “revelation” that the Planned Parenthood group was “selling aborted fetal body parts on the open market.” I’d seen a link about this on another site, and decided to take a quick look at the allegation since I know Planned Parenthood to be an ethically managed, above-board organization with a long track record of helping families. It was also obvious that the allegations were being made by the Live Action organization, a religious group with a history of mounting “sting” operations in efforts to discredit their opposition.

It wasn’t too difficult to find other articles that effectively refuted the claim, which was being loudly trumpeted by anti-choice forces as yet another example of unethical behavior. Reading through the other material, a Planned Parenthood spokeperson is quoted as saying

“At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does—with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.” He notes that there is “no financial benefit for tissue donation.” The prices that Nucatola cites, after being pressed to come up with a number in the video, likely refer to the “cost to transport tissue to leading research centers.”

I pointed this out to my friend via a Facebook comment, at which he responded that P.P. were clearly “selling fetal body parts for profit” which was a “violation of Federal law.” I yet again cited the same quote, also noting an article from The Daily Beast saying that

“The law cited by the Center for Medical Progress—42 U.S. Code § 289g—2—prohibits the acquisition and transferring of human fetal tissue “for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.” A definition within the code notes that “‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

In other words, transferring human fetal tissue is legal in the United States provided that payments are for processing and transportation costs.”

It’s also fairly obvious that, were P.P. actually engaged in illegal activities, the Federal government would have shut them down long ago or levied significant fines. Said friend absolutely refused to accept that this was the case (because, obviously, it failed to support his anger against any organization that engages in abortion), but went with the tack of asking “What tissue? What scientific research? Which diseases have been cured or ameliorated by fetal hearts or livers?”

Again, this was easy to address and it took approximately 1 minute to find numerous citations (here’s one example) about vaccines and other treatments developed and under development using fetal tissue, not to mention

“In the mid-20th century, researchers used fetal tissue to discover multiple vaccines still in use today. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to scientists who developed the polio vaccine using cultures from fetal kidney cells. One version of the rubella vaccine also came from research done on tissue taken from an aborted fetus.”

Another article specifically addresses concerns Catholics and others have over using vaccines developed using fetal tissue, indicating a long standing discussion regarding the ethics involved. And given that the use of fetal tissue dates from at least the 1950s (as evidenced by its use in development of the polio vaccine), some level of accommodation has obviously been reached with concerned organizations. It should also be noted that this was long before the Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the US.

My first concern was that my friend had made absolutely no effort to research the subject before making a totally uninformed statement asking what use fetal tissue had ever been in curing  disease. This is, sadly, all too common in modern society — people engage in blind, often venomous attacks and unsupported assertions without taking time to reach even a basic understanding of the topic. In this day of constantly-accessible information (much of it very bad, admittedly) via the Internet, there is no excuse for not educating yourself on a topic before attempting to discuss it.

My fear level rose even further when my friend, apparently angered at being confronted with material that threatened his world view, took another tack.

Oh yes, I freely admit my opposition to Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger said in Pivot of Civilization of immigrants, “They are…human weeds,’ ‘reckless breeders,’ ’spawning… human beings who never should have been born.”

The quote itself is immediately suspicious, as it would be to anyone with a history of evaluating bogus claims and researching controversial topics. Any alleged quote containing that many ellipses is automatically suspect, since it suggests the person offering the quote has removed a great deal of context in order to “massage” it to fit their agenda. Again, it was easy enough to find the “human weeds” phrase (and indeed the whole quote, complete with ellipses) cited on a number of anti-choice websites, one of which conveniently provided a link to Sanger’s book The Pivot of Civilization, which allegedly is where the quote originated. As will be seen however, it’s also blindingly obvious the author of the accusatory article didn’t bother to read the book.

Again, modern tools came to the rescue and it was only a few minutes’ work to discover that Sanger never actually said this at all (or, if she did, her statement is from another work). The word “weeds” only appears once in the entire book, in a quote about a blind child weeding a beet patch. “Reckless breeders” is also totally absent, though a few out of context references to “reckless breeding” do exist. The meaning behind these will become clear very soon.

The only section of the quote that exists in its entirety in the book is a reference to people “who never should have been born.” This is found in several areas, most prominently in the context of a discussion of Eugenics — then a topic of much interest until it was misapplied and twisted by Nazis in the form of controlled human breeding experiments, and discussions of “inferior races”. I give the entire paragraph containing the quote in order to maintain its proper context — a practice which yellow journalists and other blackguards would do well to follow if they hope to achieve any level of journalistic respect.

Eugenics is chiefly valuable in its negative aspects. It is “negative Eugenics” that has studied the histories of such families as the Jukeses and the Kallikaks, that has pointed out the network of imbecility and feeble-mindedness that has been sedulously spread through all strata of society. On its so-called positive or constructive side, it fails to awaken any permanent interest. “Constructive” Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all—that the wealth of individuals and of states is being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization.

In this context, Sanger is referring to unwanted children, mainly in poor families unable to care for large numbers of children, born due to a lack of availability of reliable birth control. The “never should have been born at all” reference is in regard to children born as the result of unwanted pregnancies, which anyone reading the material in its proper context would actually understand.

Given the venom about Sanger uttered by my friend, it only seems fit to quote the exact text of the opening statements regarding Sanger’s American Birth Control League, to wit:

Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand. Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. People who cannot support their own offspring are encouraged by Church and State to produce large families. Many of the children thus begotten are diseased or feeble-minded; many become criminals. The burden of supporting these unwanted types has to be bourne by the healthy elements of the nation. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born.

In addition to this grave evil we witness the appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child-workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health.

Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

What’s The Point?

As noted in the preface, this article is not “about” abortion. Instead, it’s about how opposing forces use selective quoting, incendiary language, and outright falsehoods (all practices appropriate to yellow journalism)  to promote a specific agenda. This practice is not uncommon, sadly, and the Internet as well as some print media is filled with similar examples. Discussions about evolution, the age of the Earth and universe, and other controversial topics are frequently peppered with false references, bogus statements, and long disproved allegations. And yet, no matter how many times these red herrings are disposed of by people who are actually familiar with the topic, they arise yet again like dark phoenixes in subsequent conversations.

This is also about something even more pernicious: the apparent inability or unwillingness of most readers to consider a writer’s motivation and sources before accepting what he or she has written. The term “consider the source” is one of the bedrocks of research; if a source is potentially untrustworthy for any reason, whether a known bias or a lack of credentials in the area under discussion, their material must be treated as suspicious until verified via independent sources.

The fact that the fake Sanger quote noted above has been blindly copied from one anti-choice site to the next without any apparent effort at verification is simple laziness, probably coupled with a desire for “damning” evidence that allows these groups to dehumanize their opposition.

What we see here is a long trail of deceptive actions, twisting of facts to fit a group’s specific narrative, and alteration of previously published material in an attempt to demonize the opposition. These so-called (and frequently cack-handed) “sting” attempts are reminiscent gangster-era plots to discredit political opponents by planting a prostitute and photographer in the opponent’s hotel room. This practice is puerile, gutless, and reminiscent of Western cultures’ portrayal of African or Native American tribes as “sub-human animals” during the 19th century as an excuse for assuming control over their lands and resources (not to mention enslaving them).

During some closing remarks on the Facebook conversation that initiated this article, another poster noted (while citing Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, mind you) that it’s easy to make use of a group for any purpose whatsoever  if you first dehumanize them. I wonder if the author of those words realizes that the people promoting and creating these false statements about one of their opponents is engaging in exactly the same practice.

Irony is an unforgiving mistress.