2012 - %3, January

Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Throws Planned Parenthood Under the Bus

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 9:52 PM EST

Planned Parenthood has been thrown under the bus by an unexpected group:

The nation's leading breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is halting its partnerships with Planned Parenthood affiliates — creating a bitter rift, linked to the abortion debate, between two iconic organizations that have assisted millions of women. The change will mean a cutoff of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, mainly for breast exams.

....Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the cutoff results from the charity's newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. According to Komen, this applies to Planned Parenthood because it's the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.

Seriously? That's their story? They're planning to respond to every politically-motivated witch hunt led by some two-bit state legislator or grandstanding county commissioner by cutting off funding to the target of the investigation? If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.

This was a craven political decision, pure and simple. Joan Walsh said this: "The Komen Foundation just destroyed its brand, and it's going to be very, very sorry." Yep. What a loathsome move.

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80 Percent of Chicken Growers Never Sanitize Poop-Filled Crates

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 7:13 PM EST
You don't want to tailgate one of these—trust me.

I was going to call this post "The Poultry Industry's Dirty Secret," but then I got to thinking: Isn't that too broad? It raises the question of which dirty secret—the fact that it turns independent family farmers into low-income serfs? Intentionally feeds arsenic to chickens, which ends up both in meat and in ground water? Severely damages one of the nation's most productive fisheries with tainted chickenshit? Routinely sends out chicken that's infected with pathogens resistant to several antibiotics?

So I added the parenthetical modifier "latest." This one shocked even me. Reports the meat-industry trade journal Meatingplace (sub required):

Survey results seem to indicate that about 80 percent of poultry growers don’t ever sanitize their crates, according to an Auburn University survey of 10,317 farms. What’s more, just 18.3 percent sanitize their trucks and trailers—two areas that contribute to the spread of Salmonella and Campylobacter.

What does this mean? First it's important to get some definitions straight. For background, this Humane Society of the United States report (PDF) delivers a pretty good overview of how poultry facilities work. Every year, HSUS informs us, the industry raises 9 billion birds in sheds the size of 1.5 football fields (about 450 feet) lengthwise and 40 feet wide. These factory-style facilities hold as many as 20,000 chickens, with enough space to offer each about a letter-size piece of paper's worth by the time they reach market size.Naturally, such conditions—along with the industry's zeal to get birds to fatten as quickly as possible—leads to all manner of injury and disease, HSUS reports:

Between 5-7 weeks of age, broiler chickens spend 76-86 percent of their time lying down, depending on the degree to which they suffer from lameness. This unusually high level of time spent lying down is thought to be related to fast growth and heavy body weight, and, in turn, leads to breast blisters, hock burns, and foot-pad dermatitis. Because sheds are sometimes cleared of litter and accumulated excrement only after several consecutive flocks have been reared, the birds often must stand and lie in their own waste and that of previous flocks.

As I've written so many times before, these sad birds are kept alive by daily doses of antibiotics—and so it's no surprise that in 2008, Johns Hopkins researchers found not only poultry-house manure, but also flies that find their way into the houses, to be rife with bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Komen Kills Grants for Planned Parenthood Breast Cancer Screenings

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 6:10 PM EST

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the ubiquitous charity dedicated to fighting breast cancer, is cancelling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of grants to Planned Parenthood that help pay for cancer screenings, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

Komen has been under pressure from anti-abortion groups to drop its funding for Planned Parenthood, which received $680,000 from the anti-cancer group in 2011. Most recently, abortion foes forced a Christian publisher to stop printing pink Komen bibles and pressured bookstores to take them off shelves. Groups have also called on supporters to boycott Komen entirely, and decried the group as a "lie from the pit of Hell." But Komen says the anti-abortion groups' activism didn't play a role in its decision, which it claims is the result of a new internal policy forbidding it from funding any organization that's currently under investigation in Congress. (Planned Parenthood is the target of a congressional investigation, but that probe is led by an anti-abortion lawmaker who has sought to end all federal support to the group.)

Are Eyes Really a Window Into the Soul?

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 5:15 PM EST

Here's something to take our minds off politics for the next few hours as we await word from Florida about just how badly Mitt Romney and his George-Soros-Goldman-Sachs-New-York-Washington-establishment-money-power have crushed Newt Gingrich's people power in today's primary. It comes from a biography of Frances Perkins, FDR's secretary of labor, and it's a reporter's description of her eyes:

It is her eyes that tell her story. Large and dark and vivid, they take their expression from her mood. If she is amused, they scintillate with little points of light. If moved to sympathy or compassion, they cloud over. At the slightest suspicion of insincerity or injustice, they can become keen and searching.

I'm pretty much oblivious to people's eyes. I could sit across from you for an hour in deep conversation and come away not even knowing the color of your eyes, let alone whether they scintillate or cloud over from time to time. So I am, sort of literally, a blind man when it comes to stuff like this.

So I turn to you, my faithful readers. Are descriptions like this for real? It's part of the whole "eyes are the window to the soul" schtick, which has always seemed more poetic than verifiably factual to me, but what do I know? And another thing: if this is real, how does it happen? That is, what physiological mechanism makes eyes scintillate or cloud over?

Help me out, those of you with normal human perceptions. What's the deal here?

POSTSCRIPT: And here's a fascinating historical tidbit that I learned today. In 1938, suspecting that Perkins, the first female cabinet member, was a communist sympathizer, conservatives concocted a story that she wasn't really American at all. Instead, she was supposedly a Russian Jewish immigrant who had lied about her real identity. Perkins eventually set the record straight in a letter outlining her genealogy, but there's no mention of whether she also had to release a copy of her long-form birth certificate to quell the rumors.

It's remarkable how history repeats itself, isn't it?

Rep. Dan Burton's Legacy: Lots of Sick Kids

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 3:57 PM EST
Dan Burton is wrong about vaccines and autism.

So Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) is finally retiring, after two decades in Congress. He's got a notable record of craziness, having doggedly pursued President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal while knowing full well he'd had an affair himself and even fathered a child out of wedlock. He famously claimed to have shot up a "head-like object" (likely a melon or a pumpkin) to try to re-create the alleged "murder" of former Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide. But Burton doesn't get enough credit for what may be his lasting legacy: helping turn Americans away from life-saving childhood vaccines.

Burton has said he believes one of his grandchildren became autistic after receiving a childhood vaccination. As a result, he spent many years and lots of congressional resources trying to investigate the alleged link between the two. In 2000, he held a circus-like hearing in which he provided a very high profile platform for the now entirely disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who helped spawn the myth that vaccines cause autism. Wakefield has since lost his medical license for allegedly falsifying the medical histories of the children he claimed had gotten autism from vaccines, among other issues.

As Wakefield's now-discredited, fabricated data started to raise questions in the medical community, Burton defended him, saying in 2002: "Dr. Wakefield, like many scientists who blaze new trails, has been attacked by his own profession. He has been forced out of his position at Royal Free Hospital in England." In 2007, Burton argued that autistic children should be eligible to receive compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, even though there was no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism.

Burton's official endorsement of Wakefield's science has had a wide-ranging impact. He gave high-level approval to an utterly false theory that ended up persuading thousands of American parents not to immunize their kids, leading to a resurgence of a lot of preventable diseases. Whooping cough has surged nationally, largely because of vaccine refusal. In places like California, where lots of parents refused to immunize their kids, whooping cough became epidemic. In 2010, four babies needlessly died as a result. Measles outbreaks are also becoming more common.

So lest people get nostalgic for Burton's good ol' days of shooting up watermelons, keep in mind that his form of kookiness had some very deadly consequences.

Reining in Super PACs Won't Be Easy

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 3:02 PM EST

Adam Skaggs writes that Congress needs to do something about the tsunami of money coming into campaigns via supposedly independent Super PACs:

Super PACs make a mockery of the idea of independence. As Elizabeth Drew wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, today, the “connections between . . . candidates and the Super PACs supporting them aren’t very well hidden.”....The candidate Super PACs were all established by former campaign advisors to the candidates. They are funded by friends and associates with close ties to the candidates (or, in the case of former candidate Jon Huntsman, by the candidate’s father). As election law expert Rick Hasen explained, Super PACs can do a lot that sure sounds like coordination, including soliciting funds, attending fundraisers, appearing in ads, and using the same lawyers — all without coordinating, and still legally claiming to be independent.

....There are countless ways the existing system of campaign finance should be reformed, but cleaning up Super PACs is an obvious first step. Congress should adopt common-sense rules that make terms like independence and coordination mean something. Super PACs that function as adjunct campaigns should be treated like what they are — and they should be subject to the same contribution limits as candidates. Putting candidates in charge of their own campaigns is the first step toward putting the public back in charge of democracy.

I would really like to hear more about this from someone steeped in — something. I'm not sure what, actually. Election law? Insider trading law? Maybe both. In any case, I'd like to hear in some detail how, exactly, rules could be written that would guarantee genuine independence. Even if some of the most obvious loopholes were closed, it still sounds close to impossible to do this without creating a lot of unintended consequences that could end up being worse than the disease we're trying to cure. Here's Drew, for example, on various proposals to cure the plague of Super PACs:

Another route would be through new legislation to assure the independence of the Super PACs. But even if this could be achieved another serious problem would arise: political consultants could be making their own decisions about what would help their candidates, who could lose control of their own campaigns.

Would true independence be better or worse than what we have now? That's as unclear to me as it is to Drew. And it's unclear to me if we could really police independence effectively anyway. After all, how many successful prosecutions for insider trading have we seen recently? Not many. It's a similar principle, and it's really, really hard to prove even though financial records often make a prima facie case that's even stronger than suspicions of collusion in electioneering.

So: suggestions welcome. But I suspect this is a very, very hard problem.

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State Senator's Comeback to Mandatory Ultrasound Bill: Mandatory Rectal Exams for Men Seeking Viagra

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 2:30 PM EST
Virginia state Sen. Janet Howell said her amendment was just about "basic fairness."

In a tongue-in-check effort to add "some gender equity" to a mandatory ultrasound bill proposed in Virginia, state Sen. Janet Howell proposed an amendment requiring men to undergo a rectal exam and cardiac stress test before getting prescriptions for erectile dysfunction drugs. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

Well, apparently not in this case. Legislators rejected Howell's amendment Monday by a rather slim 21 to 19 margin. The original bill, which is expected to pass the full Senate on Tuesday, requires women to have an ultrasound and be offered an opportunity to view the image—despite the fact that a routine ultrasound is not considered medically necessary for a first-trimester abortion (PDF). Explaining her amendment on the Senate floor, Howell said, "It’s only fair, that if we’re going to subject women to unnecessary procedures, and we’re going to subject doctors to having to do things that they don’t think is medically advisory, well, Mr. President, I think we should just have a little gender equity here."

Many states have such so-called "informed consent" laws (PDF), which, as MoJo's Kate Sheppard has pointed out, are based on the premise that "women don't know what's in their uterus." While abortion foes argue that ultrasounds are necessary to ensure that women fully grasp the consequences of their decision to abort, there's no evidence to suggest that women don't understand that abortion ends a pregnancy. Indeed, the Texas Tribune/New York Times recently reported on the effect of Texas' similar new law, which was allowed to go into effect earlier this month even though its constitutionality is being challenged in court. The law has resulted in a "bureaucratic nightmare" but, according to both clinic directors and abortion opponents, it hasn't caused a single woman to change her mind about getting an abortion.

Is Nine Months Long Enough for Evangelicals to Learn to Love Romney?

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 1:51 PM EST

Apropos of my post this morning suggesting that Republicans unhappy with the current presidential field will come around, here is Rick Perlstein:

I've never been impressed with the argument that Mitt Romney makes for a weak Republican nominee because conservatives don't like him. That's not how that party works. Like they say, "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." Don't believe me? Think back four years. When the race was still up in the air, the venom aimed at McCain was ten times worse than anything being suffered by Mitt. I collected the stuff back then: Rush Limbaugh said McCain threatened "the American way of life as we've always known it"; Ann Coulter said he was actually "a Democrat" (oof!); an article in the conservative magazine Human Events called him "the new Axis of Evil"; and Michael Reagan, talk radio host and the 40th president's son, said "he has contempt for conservatives, who he thinks can be duped into thinking he's one of them."

Then McCain wrapped up the nomination, and Mike Reagan suddenly said, "You can bet my father would be itching to get out on the campaign trail working to elect him." One thing Republicans understand: In American elections you have to choose from among only two people — not between the perfect and the good.

Roger that. However, Rick then goes on to argue that Romney's Mormon faith won't hurt him among evangelicals. After all, evangelicals hated Catholics 50 years ago ("Mother of Harlots," "Whore of Babylon," etc.) but they eventually came around when they decided they needed to make common cause to fight abortion. "When the siren song of cobelligerency beckons," he says, "theological qualms tend to fall away. That's the way it's always been."

I'll buy that. But the real question is: When? Rick suggests that conservatives usually abandon their cultural prejudices "in the fullness of time," but Romney doesn't have the fullness of time. He's got nine months. And it's not clear to me that evangelical suspicion of Mormonism as a cult is going to disappear in nine months.

This won't hurt Romney a lot. The alternative is our current Muslim president, after all, so most evangelicals will come around. But if even a few percent don't, and if a larger number vote but don't actively campaign, that could be enough to sink him. In a 50-50 nation, even a few percent can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Where's Samuel L. Jackson When You Need Him?

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 12:48 PM EST

Several weeks ago, the Obama administration announced that it has finalized a new regulation prohibiting the interstate transport of several varieties of giant snake, some of which can grow up to 18 feet long. Such massive snakes have wreaked havoc on sensitive ecosystems, as a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms.

The researchers, led by Davidson College biologist Michael E. Dorcas, report that surveys around Everglades National Park discovered a 99.3 percent decrease in the number of raccoons observed between 2003 and 2011. The number of opossums observed was down 98.9 percent, and the number of bobcats declined 87.5 percent. Where did these animals go? Into the bellies of giant, hungry pythons. The researchers conclude:

These findings suggest that predation by pythons has resulted in dramatic declines in mammals within ENP and that introduced apex predators, such as giant constrictors, can exert significant top-down pressure on prey populations. Severe declines in easily observed and/or common mammals, such as raccoons and bobcats, bode poorly for species of conservation concern, which often are more difficult to sample and occur at lower densities.

See the Washington Post, National Geographic, and NPR for more.

And while we're on the subject, here's a video of a python who tried to eat an alligator but exploded.

Intel Report Says Nonviolent Islamist Groups Could Hurt Al-Qaeda

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 12:28 PM EST
President Barack Obama chats with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The consensus of the US intelligence community is that Islamist political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could act as a buffer against extremist groups like Al Qaeda, according to the prepared remarks of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Wednesday.

Clapper's testimony offered an unclassified summary of the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, which compiles the perspectives of all the various intelligence agencies. In the section on the Arab Spring, Clapper says that intelligence officials believe that Al Qaeda's appeal will be diminished if the Arab world's fledgling democracies can deliver on key promises:

If, over the longer term, governments take real steps to address public demands for political participation and democratic institutions—and remain committed to CT efforts—we judge that core al-Qaeda and the global jihadist movement will experience a strategic setback. Al Qaeda probably will find it difficult to compete for local support with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that participate in the political process, provide social services, and advocate religious values. Nonviolent, pro-democracy demonstrations challenge al Qaeda's violent jihadist ideology and might yield increased political power for secular or moderate Islamist parties.

Clapper's testimony does warn, however, that "prolonged instability or unmet promises of reform" would create "conditions that al Qaeda would work to exploit." Islamist parties that have met success at the polls have yet to have their commitment to pluralistic democracy tested by an election loss. There are positive signs, particularly from Tunisia, but democracy is about more than elections—it's about individual rights and protections for everyone, not just those who come out on top when the ballots are counted. But since Al Qaeda's ideology is predicated on the notion that only violent conflict can bring meaningful political change, every functioning democracy in the Middle East helps disprove its thesis and diminsh its appeal. 

This conclusion is likely to be controversial among conservatives, many of whom view the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a worldwide Islamist conspiracy to establish a global caliphate, including here in the United States.