Religion and Politics

Lankford Misses Mark In Planned Parenthood Speech

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Our junior Oklahoma U.S. Senator James Lankford spoke on the Senate floor last Thursday about a sting video showing a Planned Parenthood executive supposedly talking rather bluntly about using aborted fetuses for medical research.

Obviously, Lankford, a Southern Baptist who is a social conservative in red-state Oklahoma, opposes abortion and gave a rather dramatic speech on the issue, mentioning proudly in a news release, “At the time of the speech, Lankford was the only Senator to speak on the floor about the Planned Parenthood video.”

But the video itself has come under fire for distortion with cherry-picked editing and slicing, though the organization has now released the entire video. No matter what you might think about the use of fetal tissue for research, it’s simply not right for a politically oriented organization to send undercover operatives to produce a video or story that obviously aims to support their agenda. This is unethical at worst, and at the very least, it’s not valuable for presenting an unbiased view of any political issue.

Let me present a quick overview of what happened, and then parse through a couple of Lankford’s statements in his speech that ignore how the video was produced and the agenda behind it.

In 2014, the group Center for Medical Progress sent people who have been called “actors” to have lunch with a Planned Parenthood executive in charge of medical research. This month they released a video showing the executive talking about selling fetal tissue for important stem cell research. Apparently, the Center for Medical Progress is linked to the anti-abortion group Live Action, according to media reports, and may have misled the public and the Internal Revenue Service about their agenda.

In addition, the supposedly smoking-gun video is really just a rehash of what’s been going on for years in medical research. The video has been in the news for a while, and it follows a familiar right-wing and corporate media pattern. The right-wing releases a sting video or makes an outrageous claim with scant evidence or condemns someone or some political position with a distorted take on some information. The media reports it in breathless, sensational fashion, ignoring the political context at first. Right-wing outrage ensues. The claim is then discredited or placed into appropriate context, but no one remembers the credibility problem and most right-wingers intentionally just accept the deception for what they might perceive as larger reasons.

Here’s a short rundown of links on the “hitjob,” which has raised the usual questions about veracity and intent. The mainstream media has begun to pick up on the credibility issue.

The two main points here are that (1) Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization, is definitely NOT “selling” fetal body parts, which seems to be the initial video’s point, but is merely recovering minor costs for preserving and transporting tissue to medical research facilities, and (2) as a NBC report on the issue points out, “Cells from embryos and very early fetuses have properties that fully developed cells do not. What most researchers are after if they use fetal tissue are the stem cells.”

Again, stem cell research has raised questions of medical ethics, which should be constantly debated in our culture, but that doesn’t make it a Planned Parenthood issue. It’s a larger issue. Abortion is legal in this country. Stem cells from fetal tissue and embryos can be used to develop medical treatments that save and extend lives. The issues scrutinized through the lens of medical ethics are ever-changing because of scientific advancements. The initial anti-abortion sting video, as far as I can tell, doesn’t engage these obvious points in any meaningful, unbiased way. It only sensationalizes stem cell research to stir up emotional reaction.

But the video was enough for Lankford to go on the Senate floor and deliver a speech condemning Planned Parenthood, which is often a target of religious fundamentalists and their political supporters. It’s no surprise that Lankford did this, but it lacks the type of basic leadership for which he gets lauded on The Oklahoman editorial page. Here’s what the newspaper recently had to say about Lankford:

Oklahomans can rest assured that their freshman U.S. senator is staying on top of it and, where possible, working to make a positive difference.

One could argue that Lankford’s position on abortion is shared by many of his constituents, but it’s hardly a “positive difference” to waste time on the Senate floor on information produced under suspect circumstances by a group with a political agenda. That’s not “staying on top of it . . .”. That’s simply crass politics.

Here’s a transcript of the speech posted on Lankford’s Senate site. I will look at two paragraphs in the speech. The first one argues the “bodies” of “aborted children” are “sometimes for sale.” Here it is:

We learned that this week an organization called Planned Parenthood is using children that are aborted and sending the bodies of those aborted children to research facilities, sometimes for sale, different body parts, to be used in research. These are not mice, these are not lab rats, these are children. Children that have gone through the process of a horrific abortion.

Everyone knows about Planned Parenthood. To say, “ . . . an organization called Planned Parenthood,” is to imply it’s new or not credible in a historical sense, and, as he goes on, doing something very sinister. Planned Parenthood dates back to 1916. He says “the bodies” and “different body parts” without mentioning once that it’s really about tissue for stem cell research. He argues these “bodies” are “sometimes for sale,” but that’s a distortion. Medical research costs money in terms of preservation of specimens and transportation. Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization, is merely recovering costs. His entire language in the paragraph is to elicit an emotional reaction, which riles up his angry base of voters but isn’t a truthful and thoughtful expression on the issue.

Here’s another paragraph I found especially misleading:

Why this Congress would spend time today debating horse slaughter and debating orca whales, but yet we've become so numb to children that the other debate doesn't seem to come up. Maybe we need to start again as a nation, asking a basic question. If that's a child, and in our Declaration [of Independence] we said every person that we believe is endowed by our Creator to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, maybe we need to ask as a nation again, do we really believe that?

There are two major fallacies here. One is changing the argument from the issue of stem cell research and even the video itself to the ethics of animal treatment. Does anyone reading this think this country and its politicians haven’t debated the abortion issue, which is what this is about? A person can be against abortion and also support animal rights and the environment. The second one is using a tired overarching trope of a founding national document that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue under discussion. It’s crass political rhetoric.

In the end, the sting video and Lankford’s speech don’t add up to much. They’re both simply tricks trying to sway people to be against reproductive rights for women. There’s more at stake here than just a woman’s right to choose. It’s about the continued Republican agenda to control women’s bodies.

Oklahoma House Approves Anti-Research Bill

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A bill inhibiting embryonic stem cell research in the state and opposed by the Oklahoma State Medical Association has overwhelmingly passed the Oklahoma House.

On Tuesday, the House voted 73-14 to approve House Bill 2070, dubbed the Protection of Human Life Act of 2013.

Sponsored by Dan Fisher, an El Reno Republican, the bill would specifically ban “nontherapeutic research that destroys a human embryo or subjects a human embryo to substantial risk of injury or death” or “use for research purposes cells or tissues” obtained from such an embryo.

The main problem with the bill is that it could threaten medical stem cell research in the state while setting an anti-science precedent. While the bill specifically exempts in vitro procedures it also represents yet another gambit among the anti-abortion crowd to minutely focus attention on women’s reproductive systems and conception.

For example, the bill defines a human embryo for the purposes of the bill as “including the single celled stage, that is not located in the body of a female . . .” This language seems unclear. Is that intentional? Does this definition only mean an egg removed from a woman in a medical procedure? Could it have other ramifications?

I’m not trying to ascribe some broader intention here, but parse this definition:

Human embryo means a living organism of the species Homo sapiens at the earliest stages of development, including the single celled stage, that is not located in the body of a female . . .

The Oklahoma State Medical Association, according to a news report, opposes the bill because of the “troubling precedent for future research.” Here are some recent advances in embryonic stem cell research.

This is a bad bill that no matter what its larger implications in terms of defining a human embryo could inhibit bio-medical research here and once again make the statement that a majority of state residents reject scientific research. That's not good for the state.

Religious Intrusion: Science Under Attack Again In Oklahoma

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As expected, the theory of evolution, a foundation of modern science and medicine, will be under fire again this coming legislative session in Oklahoma.

Two bills have been filed that would require school districts to help teachers address so-called “scientific controversies,” which, for creationists, primarily means evolution, a scientific theory that argues the natural world and humans have developed over time.

Senate Bill 758 has been filed by State Sen. Josh Brecheen, a Republican from Coalgate. Titled “the Oklahoma Science Education Act,” SB 758, doesn’t refer specifically to evolution, but it does state:

The State Board of Education, school district boards of education, school district superintendents and school principals shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.

Brecheen has been vocal about his opposition to the theory of evolution. In 2010, he published an article in the Durant Daily Democrat, announcing his intention to do something about it. Here’s some of what he wrote:

The religion of evolution requires as much faith as the belief in a loving God, when all the facts are considered (mainly the statistical impossibility of key factors). Gasp! Someone reading this just fell out of their enlightened seat!!! “It’s not a religion as it’s agreed upon by the entire scientific community,” some are saying at this very moment. Are you sure? Let’s explore the facts.

Consequently, SB 758 appears to be yet another backdoor attempt to distort valid science in high school curriculum with religious concepts, undoubtedly Christian concepts, such as intelligent design, about how the natural world developed. The National Center for Science Education also argues it’s clear Brecheen is modeling his legislation on Tennessee’s so-called “Monkey Law” legislation, passed in that state in 2012.

House Bill 1674, introduced by Gus Blackwell, a Republican from Laverne, specifically mentions evolution and other areas of so-called controversial science. HB 1674, called “the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act,” states:

The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Much like Brecheen’s bill, Blackwell’s bill also states: “Educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies.”

Note also the reference to “global warming” in the bill, which is the most severe problem facing the planet right now and is almost certain to negatively impact our students' lives in years to come unless we start now to limit manmade carbon emissions. Obviously, this short-sighted bill aims to discredit climate-change science.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Mike Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, has introduced House Bill 1456 or the so-called “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act,” which has been considered before by the legislature but never signed into law. This bill states:

Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.

And,

Students shall not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.

In other words, teachers would have to allow reductionist religious challenges to basic scientific information. The bill would also allow students to speak about a “religious viewpoint” in public forums at school.

As I’ve noted, bills similar to the ones submitted by Brecheen, Blackwell and Reynolds have been introduced before in the Oklahoma Legislature but have never been signed into law. These bills and previous bills are based on many fallacies but especially this one: There is no controversy about evolution. It’s only a manufactured controversy by right-wing religious folks, who think the theory of evolution challenges their Biblical beliefs in how the world began and developed. Just like with global warming, there is no major scientific controversy; all the controversy remains outside of science, though creationists have created the faux science of intelligent design to advance their religious agenda. Intelligent design, which a federal court has ruled is NOT valid science, argues that the world is so complicated in its natural forms that it had to be created by a designer, i.e., wink, wink, the Christian version of God.

Anyone concerned about the scientific method, academic integrity, our public school children and the state’s national and world image should oppose these bills, which should be viewed as extremist and radical. Let’s don’t dumb down our students. Evolution and global warming, and other scientific concepts, will still be taught in other parts of the country and the world. Our students will get left behind and many will be embarrassed to live here.

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