Panel members called the hearing a "farce," "witch hunt," and "kangaroo court."
Hannah LevintovaApr. 21, 2016 12:14 PM
The Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a House committee formed in the wake of last summer's Planned Parenthood sting videos, convened on Wednesday to discuss "the pricing of fetal tissue."
This marked the fifth time Congress has held a hearing to discuss the allegations that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue for a profit—a practice that is illegal according to federal law. Last summer, the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released secretly recorded, deceptively edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of fetal tissue. Four separate congressional hearings found no such wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. Unsatisfied, House Republicans, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), formed this investigative panel last October to continue looking into the possibility that the women's health provider is selling fetal tissue and breaking the law.
In addition to the four congressional hearings, 12 states have so far investigated the allegations of fetal tissue sales by Planned Parenthood and turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. In Texas, a grand jury that began with the intent of investigating Planned Parenthood instead indicted CMP's David Daleiden, the creator of the videos, and absolved the women's health care provider. None of these exonerations, however, has derailed this House committee. Wednesday's hearing didn't make much headway in separating fact from fiction, but it made for some great political theater. Here are a few highlights:
1) A fight over sources: As Blackburn was about to begin her opening statement, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) cut in to pose a fundamental question. In advance of the hearing, the committee had released a set of exhibits purporting to show that procurement companies are working with abortion clinics so both players can derive a profit from selling fetal tissue. DeGette requested that she be allowed to question the committee staff that created the packet, in large part because the sourcing for many of the most incendiary pieces of evidence—including a draft contract between a procurement company and an abortion clinic and several charts implying the growing profitability of fetal tissue procurement—is not noted anywhere in the exhibits.
Blackburn declined to make the staff available, answering that the source was the "investigative work" of the committee, as well as materials obtained through the committee's "whistleblower portal," a form on its website. Unsatisfied by this answer, DeGette asked the committee to exclude the use of these exhibits until their origins are ascertained. "If you won't let me find out what the basis is for these exhibits, then I object to their use," she said. The committee rejected her request.
2) Déjà vu: The first witness to testify was Fay Clayton, a Chicago attorney. Clayton recalled how in 2000 she represented a nonprofit that donated fetal tissue to medical researchers in a case strikingly similar to the Planned Parenthood one. In her case, a different anti-abortion group, Life Dynamics, made a video in which a former employee of the Anatomical Gift Foundation alleged that the group was selling—not donating—fetal tissue. The videos led to sensational media coverage and House hearings, until the former employee was deposed under oath. At that point, he made clear that the accusations he'd made on video were false. He was paid by Life Dynamics to say these things on camera, and he agreed to do so because he needed the money. "What was for sale wasn't fetal tissue; it was a phony witness statement," said Clayton at Wednesday's hearing.
She wondered aloud why the panel has subpoenaed a number of medical researchers and health care providers, but has not subpoenaed the creator of the videos. "Unless this Select Panel is willing to put Mr. Daleiden and his associates under oath and get to the bottom of what they did, it should terminate these proceedings now and return to doing the people's business," Clayton concluded.
3) Internal contradictions: At the beginning of the question-and-answer session, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) sought clarification. One of the committee's exhibits concludes that an abortion clinic incurs no costs in the process of procuring fetal tissue. But other exhibits contradict that, Nadler said, and show that the process requires employee time and equipment for drawing blood, discussing consent forms, and more—all costs that federal law considers reimbursable.
Nadler asked the panel to explain the discrepancy in their materials. Blackburn answered simply, "There is no discrepancy." Nadler and Blackburn then went through several more rounds of back-and-forth, with Nadler repeating his question and Blackburn avoiding a direct answer, saying that the exhibits are based on the committee's "investigatory work." A frustrated Nadler called out her vague answers. "Can you explain how using a chart that draws conclusions that have no objective basis in fact other than your statement that somebody investigated does not violate House rules?" he asked.
4) An episode of House of Cards, and a kangaroo court: When it came time for Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) to speak, she did not mince words. "This hearing belongs in a bad episode of House of Cards," Speier said. "In fact, this hearing is literally based on a house of cards, and the exhibits being used as a foundation are, in all likelihood, the product of a theft carried out by someone who is now under indictment in Texas." Speier was referring to an ongoing line of questioning by various members of the panel who had asked for a clear explanation of the sourcing for the investigative panel's exhibits. "Is this hearing really going to proceed based on stolen and misleading documents? Even Frank Underwood would be blushing at this point."
Speier chided the committee for wasting time on this issue in pursuit of a political agenda: "This so-called committee is the very definition of a kangaroo court," she said, "a mock court that disregards the rules of law and justice to validate a predetermined conclusion." She also criticized the panel for expending effort on "what goes on inside a woman's uterus" while "ignoring what happens to babies and children outside of them." She pointed to the health implications for children in stifling fetal tissue research, and specifically to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent research that has used fetal tissue to investigate the connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly. You can watch her incensed testimony below:
5) A shoddy investigation: After the witnesses completed their testimony, DeGette repeated her disapproval of the shoddy sourcing for the committee's exhibits and her puzzlement as to why the committee refused to be more transparent, particularly given the severity of their allegations. "The reason I'm kind of stuck on this," she said, "is because if people are selling fetal tissue in violation of the law, then we need to have an investigation. But we can't have some witch hunt based off some things that were taken off of screenshots and charts created by staff." She continued, "Even though 12 states have investigated and found there was nothing, if you want to send it to the Department of Justice for investigation, I'll guarantee you, they won't make up little charts with their staffs. They will get to the bottom of it with original documents, and I suggest that's what you should do if you think there is a criminal violation."
The CNN town hall with Ted Cruz and his family on Wednesday night began with host Anderson Cooper talking to the candidate about the usual political subjects, including his thoughts about GOP front-runner Donald Trumps' vocal opposition to the current system of gathering delegates in advance of the Republican National Convention. Cruz said Trump is acting like a "union boss thug" by threatening delegates and noted that he's only complaining about the process because recently he has lost several key primaries. "In the last three weeks there have been 11 elections in four states. And we have beaten Donald in all of 11 of them," Cruz said. "He's unhappy about that."
When Heidi Cruz joined her husband on stage and audience members came to the mic, the questions moved from the political to the personal: What was their first date? (A dinner when the two were working on the Bush campaign in 2000.) What did she think was his "most annoying" quality? (His iPhone.) Cruz also told the audience that he loves movies but his wife isn't interested in them, and that, after The Princess Bride, his favorite movies are The Godfather series, including The GodfatherPart III.
But the real highlight of the evening came when Cruz's two young daughters, dressed in identical yellow dresses, were asked whom they would first want to invite to visit the White House. Caroline, whose eighth birthday is on Thursday, and five-year-old Catherine, were shy about naming their favorite pop star, but their mother, Heidi, answered for them: "The girls would love to have their first guest be Taylor Swift," she said.
The girls may not have had much to say on the Cruz versus Trump delegate fight, but they weighed in on a different kind of "Bad Blood" (#sorrynotsorry). The whole family exchange was pretty adorable.
A preacher and two real estate entrepreneurs offer a glimpse of how far the candidate could go in rolling back LGBT protections.
Hannah LevintovaApr. 13, 2016 6:00 AM
Charlotte anti-LGBT activists David and Jason Benham
As he worked to rally evangelical voters a week before North Carolina's March 15 primary, Ted Cruz gave a speech at a church in the Charlotte suburb of Kannapolis, where he was joined by a trio of prominent local social conservative supporters: Charlotte pastor and congressional candidate Mark Harris and the Benham brothers, the telegenic real estate entrepreneurs whose house-flipping show on HGTV was canceled in 2014 when their history of anti-gay activism came to light. At the event, Cruz thanked Harris for "calling the nation to revival," and called David and Jason Benham "an extraordinary voice for the Christian faith."
For years, Harris and the Benhams have been at the forefront of every battle to oppose gay rights in North Carolina. This past February, they were at it again, this time against a nondiscrimination ordinance proposed in Charlotte that, among other things, allowed transgender people to use public restrooms based on their gender identity and protected LGBT people from discrimination by public institutions. The advocacy of these top Cruz supporters against the Charlotte ordinance eventually led the North Carolina legislature to push through one of the most sweeping anti-LGBT measures in the country, a law that has caused a national outcry and caused many companies, including PayPal, to scrap plans to invest in the state. The law, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, strikes down all existing and future LGBT nondiscrimination statutes in North Carolina and requires that transgender people use bathrooms based on their sex at birth.
Harris' and the Benhams' state activism is significant because, if Cruz wins the presidential race, the considerable influence of these three religious activists could extend far beyond North Carolina. In February, Cruz appointed them to his campaign's advisory council for religious liberty, along with 16 other conservative Christian leaders. The GOP candidate has promised that this group will "guide his policies to protect religious liberty"—policies that could look very much like the anti-LGBT bill in North Carolina. The group is filled with key players in the anti-LGBT world, including Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council (which is classified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center); it has already recommended that Cruz, if elected president, should stop federal employment discrimination protections for LGBT people, direct federal agencies to change their interpretation of "sex" to exclude sexual orientation and gender identity, cancel the mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage, and much more. Cruz has surrounded himself with this group of anti-LGBT heavyweights, and the work of Harris and the Benhams in North Carolina provides a glimpse into what this group can accomplish when it comes to rolling back LGBT protections in the name of religious freedom.
Harris and the Benhams first rose to prominence in 2012, when they helped organize the movement to pass a North Carolina constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions. The Benhams—who are sons of an evangelical minister, and who had previously worked to quash local pride parades and organize anti-abortion protests—testified in favor of the measure and at one point equated the battle against marriage equality with fighting Nazis. Harris has been a well-known Baptist minister in Charlotte since 2005 and his church contributed more than $50,000 to the campaign to ban same-sex marriage. (The amendment passed but was invalidated in 2014 after a Supreme Court ruling.)
"All the social-issue stuff was bottled up with no outlet. But once you had the Republican legislature, you could just go wild."
Their temporarily successful work against same-sex marriage illustrated the growing power and influence of the state's social conservatives. Fueled by millions of campaign dollars from a few conservative megadonors, Republicans took over both chambers of the state legislature in the 2010 election, fueled by voters' economic dissatisfaction. Once in power, legislating social issues was a logical next step for this group of newly elected conservatives, says Steven Greene, a political-science professor at North Caroline State University. By 2012, the General Assembly made one of its first moves in this direction by voting to put the ban on same-sex unions onto that year's ballot. "Before 2010, we were largely under Democratic control," Greene says. "All the social-issue stuff was bottled up with no outlet. But once you had the Republican legislature, you could just go wild."
In 2014, when HGTV pulled the Benhams' show after journalists revealed their anti-gay activism, the brothers became social conservative heroes. They then wrote their first book, Whatever the Cost, about their sacrifice for their faith. Soon after, in February 2015, Charlotte introduced its anti-discrimination ordinance and Harris and the Benhams snapped into action. Faith Matters NC, a grassroots religious liberty group vice chaired by Harris, took out a radio ad on a conservative talk radio station in Charlotte. "I'd be really scared if a man shared a bathroom with my daughter," says a woman in the ad, of the bill's provision allowing public-restroom use based on gender identity. "This nightmare could become a reality right here in Charlotte if we don't speak up quickly," she continues, encouraging listeners to contact their city council members and demand that they vote down the "bathroom bill."
The Benham brothers, meanwhile, headlined a rally to promote biblical values at Charlotte City Hall. And on a conservative radio show David Benham called the bill part of "the radical gay agenda's plan to change America." He also penned an op-ed for the Charlotte Observer opposing the bill: "Clearly, this ordinance isn't really about non-discrimination," he wrote. "It's about forcing the acceptance of behavior." With his father, Flip, a well-known anti-gay street preacher in Charlotte, David addressed the city council on the day they voted on the ordinance. During the meeting, a transgender woman collapsed after giving her testimony. Flip Benham reportedly laughed and poked fun at her gender while she lay on the floor awaiting medical attention. He also allegedly confronted a transgender girl as she walked out of the bathroom, calling her a "pervert" and "young man."
"Clearly, this ordinance isn't really about non-discrimination," he wrote. "It's about forcing the acceptance of behavior."
The bill failed in 2015 but was reintroduced the following year. Once again, Harris and the Benhams led the opposition: Harris, for instance, heldmeetings at his church for the "Don't Do It Charlotte" campaign, and all three headlined a rally opposing themeasure. Despite their efforts, the ordinance passed in February 2016. Several weeks later, on March 18, opponents of the measure held a press conference in front of a city government building to urge state lawmakers to override the ordinance. David Benham was the opening speaker: "We sure hope the governor and General Assembly will do what is right," he said. Harris gave the closing speech: "Governor McCrory and the General Assembly must act now to protect women and children all across North Carolina," he said. He urged the governor to call for a special session to undo the Charlotte ordinance.
Five days later, that's exactly what happened. In a hastily convened special session, legislators in the Republican-controlled assembly introduced, debated, and passed HB 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, in less than 12 hours. Lawmakers had five minutes to read the bill, and Democratic legislators walked out of the assembly in protest. The rushed passage of HB 2 and the law's broad scope gained national attention, in part because the bill's language invalidates all local nondiscrimination statutes in the state, not just those tied to protecting the LGBT community. "Make no mistake: While LGBT folks were clearly the political target, everybody lost rights," Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson told Charlotte TV station WCNC. The bill also prohibits a locality from setting a minimum wage standard for private employers, and it limits how citizens can file claims of discrimination based on factors like race, religion, nationality, biological sex, and more.
When asked about their involvement in pushing for HB 2's passage, the Benham brothers, in an email to Mother Jones, wrote: "Before the bill was passed we had already been notified by the Governor that legislative action was certain, so we simply encouraged our elected officials to listen to the voice of the people." They continued, "It's common sense not to allow men in women's restrooms. It's also common sense not to force business owners to participate in expressive events that are against their religious beliefs."
For Cruz, who has staked his campaign on winning over evangelical voters, Harris and the Benhams made natural allies. And as Cruz plotted his presidential bid, he sought to woo these influential social conservatives. In 2014, Cruz headlined a religious rally at Harris' Charlotte church. That same year, Cruz reached out to the Benhams to express his support after HGTV dropped their show. Then last November, the Benhams emceed a Cruz rally for religious liberty in South Carolina, and in January 2016 they formally endorsed Cruz for president. The following month, Harris endorsed him as well. "Mark's commitment to be a guiding light in the cultural and political arenas has impacted Christians in North Carolina and across the nation," Cruz said in a press release trumpeting the endorsement.
Supporting Cruz may bring political benefits for Harris, too. Two days after the HB 2 victory, Harris announced he would be running for Congress to protect "liberty, faith, and family."
"Mark's commitment to be a guiding light in the cultural and political arenas has impacted Christians in North Carolina and across the nation," Cruz wrote.
Mark Knoop, the campaign's spokesman, said that since starting his own campaign, Harris "is entirely focused on his own campaign," and has put his role as a religious liberty adviser to Cruz "on the backburner."
The impact of the work of Harris and the Benham brothers in North Carolina has caused national backlash. As word spread of the state's new law, more than 120 major corporations, including Apple, American Airlines, and PayPal, urged the governor to repeal the bill or to face dire business consequences. In response, the Benham brothers wrote an op-ed for conservative website World Net Daily defending the governor: "Once the media started reporting, you would've thought the governor had joined ISIS!" wrote the brothers. "They've crafted the narrative in the media that North Carolina's HB2 is against LGBT individuals, yet nothing could be further from the truth." (On Tuesday, the state's Gov. Pat McCrory responded to the backlash with an executive order granting LGBT protections only to state employees.)
Harris' campaign makes a similar point. "Its not like North Carolina is persecuting the LGBT community," says Knoop. "The whole point is that people going to a bathroom are going to the right bathroom." When asked to elaborate on Harris' stance on portions of HB 2 unrelated to bathroom use, including the part that invalidates the state's LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, Knoop declined to comment.
The Republican presidential candidate is going after a law inspired by the anti-abortion tactics of one of his top supporters.
Hannah LevintovaApr. 1, 2016 10:25 AM
In 1991, thousands of anti-abortion protesters sat in the streets of Wichita, Kansas, blocking roads to abortion clinics for six weeks. The enormous protest, which led to thousands of arrests and crippled both reproductive health care access and law enforcement, was organized by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. The groupwas linked to a string of attacks on abortion clinics in the 1980s and early 1990s, prompting Congress to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, which instituted criminal penalties for physical damage and other violence against abortion providers.
Fast forward to 2016. Troy Newman, the evangelical leader of Operation Rescue, is now an avid backer of the presidential campaign of Ted Cruz and a co-chair of Pro-Lifers for Cruz, a national anti-abortion coalition formed by the Cruz campaign. Cruz has touted Newman's support, calling him a "leading pro-life activist" who "has served as a voice for the unborn for over 25 years."
And on Tuesday, Cruz sent a letter to the Department of Justice arguing that it has mounted "frivolous" FACE Act prosecutions of anti-abortion protesters like Newman (who was charged under the act in 1998 for obstructing a Washington, DC, clinic) and should use the law to protect places of religious worship.
In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the senator from Texas and his Republican colleague Mike Lee of Utah wrote that the DOJ is engaging in "warped and biased enforcement" of the FACE Act.When the FACE Act was debated in Congress in 1994, the House and Senate agreed to a Republican amendment to extend the protections given to abortion clinics to places of religious worship as a concession to help pass the bill.Cruz and Lee now allege that the DOJ has ignored the religious protections of the FACE Act, focusing unfairly on prosecuting the anti-abortion movement. They noted in their letter that the webpage for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, which enforces the FACE Act, links to several FACE cases tied to abortion providers, but does not list any prosecutions tied to places of religious worship.
There's a reason for that, says Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation. Cases must clear a high bar to trigger a FACE prosecution, one that protests against religious facilities hardly ever reach. "There are aggressive protests taking place every day outside of abortion clinics," Saporta says. "There are many instances where abortion providers are being threatened but the DOJ does not prosecute. They are very clear that there needs to be a true threat—force or the threat of force—and rock-solid proof before they will proceed with a FACE case."
The FACE Act is at the nexus of all things Cruz. His presidential campaign has focused on religious freedom, helping him corner enough votes from evangelicals to beat Donald Trump in several state primaries and caucuses. He has also touted his unbending pro-life stance—he believes in outlawing abortion, with no exception for rape or incest cases, and has promised to defund Planned Parenthood as president—as further evidence of his devoutness and commitment to traditional values.
The letter from Cruz and Lee asked the DOJ to provide additional information by April 11 about its FACE enforcement tied to pro- and anti-abortion groups and religious organizations. The Cruz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Religious groups say that facilitating birth control coverage violates their beliefs, so the justices are trying to find a workaround.
Hannah LevintovaMar. 29, 2016 4:13 PM
On Tuesday afternoon, the US Supreme Court issued an order in Zubik v. Burwell, one of two critical reproductive rights cases currently before the court. In this case, several religious groups—including the Little Sisters of the Poor—contend that the Affordable Care Act's current protocol for religious groups seeking to opt out of covering contraceptives for their employees still violates their religious beliefs.
In their order, the justices asked both sides to present ideas for how contraceptive coverage can be provided for employees without any direct involvement by the religious employer. That's because the plaintiffs—which also include groups of priests, bishops, and several religious universities—take issue with even tangential involvement in facilitating birth control coverage, saying that the form they must complete to opt out of Obamacare's birth control mandate violates their beliefs because it requires them to help employees get birth control elsewhere.
The order suggests one workaround: The employer could voice their opposition to birth control in its initial contracts with insurance companies, and then leave the rest to the insurer. The insurance company would then be responsible for facilitating alternative birth control coverage, eliminating the need for groups to file any additional forms opting out of birth control coverage on religious grounds.
Still, the distinction here is quite thin: If notifying the government violates a religious group's beliefs, it's unclear how shifting the process to one where they notify the insurance company instead will do much to alleviate their concerns.