Category Archives: memes

when i see “viral” content that cries out for some scrutiny…

black babies’ lives matter…

This post, my first in a long time, is both longer than most previous posts, and far more personal.

The other day, I made the following post on my personal Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 6.33.16 PM

Soon after, an old college friend — whom I’ve known for years to be a devout evangelical Christian — left a comment asking why I considered the meme to be “B-S”.  This started a lengthy exchange that went on for most of the day, and I found myself wanting to express my thoughts on the issue as thoroughly as I could.  I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind — that wasn’t my goal.  I just wanted to be as clear as possible, and I found myself thinking through the issue in greater depth than I have in some time.  So I’ve taken the comments I made on Facebook and pasted them below.  Out of courtesy, I’ve decided to just summarize my friend’s responses.

As I said, she wanted to know why I called “bull-shit” on Sarah Palin’s post —

If there are more PP clinics in minority neighborhoods, it’s because minorities are still more likely to live in economically depressed zones, which is where the need for low-cost access to health services is greatest (and, as [another friend] also correctly pointed out, abortion is but one of the services PP provides, and it is hardly the most frequently provided one at that).

But mostly it’s B-S because of the argument that’s being constructed. This meme is suggesting that we liberals are being inconsistent — if not downright hypocritical — for supporting both PP and #BlackLivesMatter. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is about eradicating the sort of institutional racism that results in the devaluing of black lives. Which probably immediately raises the question, “But isn’t PP an active participant in that, because what could be worse than killing so many black babies?”

The problem with that question is that it doesn’t look deep enough. Why do more minority women terminate pregnancies? It’s not as if they’re being lured into PP clinics and pressured into abortion procedures. No, they, like most women who have this procedure, take a look at their lives and determine that they simply cannot provide an environment conducive to raising a healthy child. The reasons they come to this conclusion could be any number of things: low-income; low-education; poor health; unsafe neighborhood; unstable family; any number of negative circumstances. Interestingly enough, each of those circumstances can, in some way, be seen as the result of systemic, institutional racism — the very thing #BlackLivesMatter is trying to combat.

The great irony is that, maybe, by taking #BlackLivesMatter more seriously, we could remove the very source of the reasons so many minority women feel compelled to end their pregnancies in the first place.

She took issue with my suggestion that Planned Parenthood doesn’t “lure” women of color into their clinics, and instead argued that PP deliberately places clinics where they will have the “most business”.  I replied —

We clearly see PP’s operations from very different angles. I conclude that they establish clinics in minority and low-income areas because that’s where there is the greatest need for services. You see that as picking locations where “they would have the most business”. You call low-cost healthcare “alluring”, whereas I consider it a necessary alternative to no care whatsoever, which is the choice that faces those at the fringes of our capitalistic society. But, that difference in our perspectives is probably inevitable since I consider PP’s work (the whole of it, not merely its abortion services) to be a positive contribution to society, whereas as you view it as participating in a great evil.

Which is really the fundamental chasm that exists between us: I simply do not consider a terminated pregnancy murder. A fertilized egg is not a human being. An implanted fertilized egg is not a human being. I simply cannot believe that and reconcile it with the staggering numbers of fertilized eggs which spontaneously abort, and the number of implanted eggs which miscarry. I cannot.

However, that is not to say that I don’t consider a terminated pregnancy a tragedy. Because what that abortion usually tells us is that a woman found herself in a position where she concluded she could not bring a child to term. I find it tragic, that in a nation this wealthy, with all its resources, that a woman expecting a child would *ever* doubt that there would be enough resources to care for that child. I would much prefer that, should a woman ever find herself unexpectedly pregnant (which would happen less if we wouldn’t make birth-control such a burden to obtain) then she would feel confident in the support made available to her when it comes time to raise her child.

Put another way, I’d take anti-abortion efforts more seriously if they were coupled with an equally ferocious commitment to addressing the conditions that make women feel that abortion is their only choice.

She then asked me the inevitable question — when do I believe a human being is a human being.  She also argued that the “conditions” I mentioned are addressed by the Christian community, citing a number of clinics in her area that try to provide social support services while emphasizing alternatives to abortions.  I left a rather long response —

I’m going to respond in two parts, if that’s okay, and I think I’ll tackle the easier part first.

When I talk about a “commitment to address the conditions that make women feel that abortion is their only choice,” I’m referring to what is essentially a symptom-vs.-cause breakdown of the issue. Abortions are a symptom of a larger problem: social and economic conditions that leave women in a position unable to bear a child healthily and safely. And I feel that there’s a frustrating disconnect between how the Christian community — the portion of it we’re discussing here, at least — approaches these two sides of the abortion issue.

When it comes to the symptom — the actual act of terminating a pregnancy — the approach is overwhelmingly focused on public policy. Laws restricting the number of weeks during which an abortion can be had. Or requiring providers to have admitting privileges at the nearest hospital. Or requiring (if you really want to talk about heinousness) that women undergo trans-vaginal ultrasounds before being granted permission to have the procedure done. It’s all about passing laws that make the process damn near impossible to get through. It’s using the power of legislation to burden a woman’s ability to exercise what is still a Constitutional right.

On the other hand, when it comes to root causes — social and economic inequities that disproportionately affect people of color — what is there? You mention clinics in [her area]. And while I’m certainly not about to denigrate the work they do, I will say that it’s not nearly an adequate response to the problem. Systemic issues cannot be solved at the not-for-profit level.

What I’m getting at is that the approach is entirely backwards. When it comes to treating the symptom — convincing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term — that, I believe, is most effectively accomplished at the personal level. And that can be achieved by the type of charities you mention.

But the deeper causes will only be solved through public policy. And so far, to my knowledge, the most anti-abortion Christians have not been the ones pushing for expansions of Medicaid. Or supporting coverage of birth control by health insurance plans. Or advocating for better early education funding and paid family leave. Or demanding a change in mandatory minimum sentencing laws that keep a truly disgusting proportion of young, predominantly black men in prison.

In fact, the same political bloc that works so hard to make abortion illegal seems to me to be the same bloc trying to make life for the poor even more difficult than it already is — by pushing for ever fewer weeks of unemployment benefits; by placing ever more restrictions on the uses of SNAP benefits; by submitting (at a HUGE loss to taxpayers) welfare recipients to drug-testing; and generally making life at the bottom of the economic pyramid as humiliating as possible.

That same political bloc is also at the forefront of every battle to prevent the sharing of information that would enable young people to avoid unintended pregnancies, by opposing comprehensive sex education and insisting instead that teenagers be taught only to abstain from sex altogether.

Ultimately, what I see is pattern in which a certain subset of American Christians are perfectly happy to translate their religious views into law when it will constrain other peoples’ behavior, but are terribly opposed to doing so when it might actually relieve other peoples’ suffering. I would prefer to see the opposite.

Now, for the more difficult question: when do I believe we actually become human beings?

This should actually be a short post, because my main answer is, “I don’t know.” But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?

First of all, there are two ways that we have to answer this question: the legal, and the spiritual. And yes, I do believe they are different and, more importantly, independent of each other.

The reason for that is a legal definition of personhood requires precision. It requires a clear, identifiable boundary between “person” and “not”. Further, it requires a shared understanding of where that boundary lies. And since it has to be shared among a population with a dizzying variety of viewpoints, it has to be maximally accommodating.

Why? Because only a maximally accommodating law will allow every person to act according to their own belief system. And the decision whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term is, ultimately, a personal decision that should be guided only, and entirely, by that person’s own belief system. (Now, if you want to change a person’s belief system, that is done through your witness, not through legislation).

Unfortunately, our country’s definition is hardly precise. If I remember correctly, it relies on the notion of “viability” which I think tends to be placed at 24 weeks. Personally, I’m drawn to our country’s early standard — that a pregnancy could be terminated up to the “quickening”, when a woman could feel the fetus moving inside her. But that’s hardly more precise, is it?

When it comes to the spiritual understanding of personhood, it gets even fuzzier. I no longer subscribe to the literally-interpreted Biblical standard of conception (ie, “you knew me in the womb”). But I do think there’s a critical point before birth where what’s there should be protected.

What is that critical point? How could I possibly pin it down? It’s like the classic paradox of the heap. You would never call a single grain of sand a heap. But if you keep adding one grain at a time, it eventually becomes something you would call a heap. When did it cross over from a collection of sand grains to an actual heap? When does a collection of splitting cells become something we call a human being?

For me, it comes down to potential. Each fertilized egg has the potential to implant. But not every one does. Each implanted egg has the potential to grow into an embryo. But not every one does. The odds in these early stages aren’t all that great. But as the process goes on, the odds get ever greater, and the potential that this collection of cells will become something we recognize as a human being only gets stronger. There’s a hidden boundary that’s crossed. It’s because of that hidden boundary that I have no problem saying to someone the morning after, “Yeah, you should probably get some Plan B” but would tell someone six months in, “Um, I think it’s a little late to be changing your mind.”

For me, that’s the beautiful mystery of human life. And, in terms of my spiritual life, I treasure that mystery. If this is to be a land of liberty, then our county’s law will allow each of us to counsel others according to our own beliefs.

Our conversation ended there since, frankly, it had gotten quite late and we both needed to call it a night.  In regards to the start of human life, she reiterated her belief that it begins at conception.  And as for what I identified as the root causes of abortion, she acknowledged that we simply disagreed on the role of government in peoples’ lives.  Since it had gotten so late, we couldn’t pursue it any further than that.

Which is a shame, because that might be what I find most flabbergasting of all — how do people decide, “I will try to turn my religious beliefs into law for this but not for that“?  In this case, how do you justify pushing for laws that prohibit abortions (knowing full well that outlawing an action certainly won’t keep it from happening), and yet insist that the adverse conditions which compel women to terminate their pregnancies should only be addressed  — insufficiently, no matter how nobly — through charity? I just don’t get it.

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(not quite) exposing the Ice Bucket Challenge scam (because it doesn’t exist)…

Two friends of mine from completely opposite ends of the political spectrum shared links with more or less the same information today.  Given the rarity of such an occurrence, I decided to take a deeper look.

The gist of the posts was that all of you naive yet well-meaning folks taking part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have been duped.  While everyone is celebrating the $100 million or so that has been raised as a result of this shocker of a social-philanthropy phenomenon, the foundation that is benefitting is, allegedly, not doing with the money what you think it’s doing.

Here’s the post from PoliticalEar:

ICE BUCKET FRAUD:  ALS FOUNDATION ADMITS THAT 73% OF DONATIONS ARE NOT USED FOR ALS RESEARCH!

We’ve been duped. America is filled with fun-loving and caring people. The viral ice bucket challenge has combined both our sense of responsibility to our fellow human with fun. And it has been fun! Who didn’t love seeing Sarah Palin doused?

But wait? Ice Bucket Challenge donations are nearing $100 MILLION. Where is that money going?

According to the ALS Foundation, not towards ALS.

Over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations. Less than 27% is actually used for the purpose we donated for.

The site also includes this handy pie-chart for reference —

als-association-donations* it should be noted, the numbers above add up to only 99% due to rounding

The misrepresentations abound.  Let us begin with the title.

Saying the ALS Association “admits” that 73% of donations are not used for ALS research implies that this was some dirty little secret that has only come to light because the organization was forced to reveal its underhanded operations by the Internet’s never-ending troop of intrepid investigators.

Here’s a little Not-for-Profit 101:  the ALSA is a 501(c)(3) corporation, so-called for the portion of the IRS code that allows for tax-deductible donations.  Such organizations are required by law to make annual disclosures of their financial activities.  Illustrating their expense breakdown by category isn’t “admitting” anything, it’s simply exercising the basic principles of good governance.  The ALSA has not hidden this information.  It’s not a secret.  They have made it publicly available and easily accessible.  In fact, do you know where the handy pie-chart above came from?  The ALS website.  Specifically, the page titled ‘Financial Information’… which is linked to from the website’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – FAQ (featured on their homepage) under the question “Where can I read more about the finances of the ALS Association?”

Then there’s the (admittedly nit-picky) fact that the breakdown is characterized thusly:  “Over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations.” (emphasis added)

Wrong.

The combination of non-research spending the ALSA does not constitute 73% of donations but 73% of their total annual operating budget (which, for reference, is just above $25m).  And that operating budget is formed from more sources than just charitable contributions.  Though, just to make a point, donations to the ALSA during the period being reported were $8.412m… which would suggest that roughly 86% of donations raised went towards research.  Except that’s not how donations work — unrestricted donations can be used for any aspect of the organization’s operations.  But any donor can declare that their donation is restricted for a particular purpose, and the organization is legally obligated to abide by that (ie, if you want 100% of your donation to ALSA to go towards research, it is actually your obligation to tell them that).

Now, let’s move on to what the writer believes this 73% is comprised of:  fundraising, overheard, executive salaries, and external donations.  Sounds like a lot of things, right?  Except that “executive salaries” is included in “overhead”, not separate from it.  And both administrative overhead and fundraising together comprise what are called Supporting Activities. By this chart, the ACLA’s Supporting Activities make up a completely reasonable 21% of the overall operating budget.

Now, I have no idea what the writers mean by “external donations,” but I assume they’re referring to the remaining portions of the expense budget, which comprise the ALSA’s two non-research program activities.

The ALSA makes very clear that its approach to the issue of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is three-pronged.  Their mission statement —

OUR MISSION: Leading the fight to treat and cure ALS through global research and nationwide advocacy while also empowering people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and their families to live fuller lives by providing them with compassionate care and support. (emphasis added)

Research, then, is but one of three primary activities the organization engages in.  This does not undermine the importance of research.  It simply acknowledges that there is a broader range of actions that can be taken to aid those suffering from ALS — such as public advocacy and education, as well as patient and caregiver support (and as someone who has worked as a caregiver for individuals with neurodegenerative diseases, I can attest to the importance of this).

When understood this way, it becomes clear that the ALSA’s primary activities (which include but are not limited to research) amount to 79% of its operating budget, which puts in line with the vast majority of not-for-profit organizations in this country (according to Charity Navigator).

Not only is this amount exemplary by not-for-profit standards, it represents an increase over the last few years, as demonstrated by their annual reports from not just 2014, but also 2013 and 2012 (which includes comparison data from 2011).  And, should you have the chance to look at the last four years of financial data, you’ll notice that while the Program Activities portion of the budget (which includes research) has increased over the last four years, the Supporting Activities (overhead/fundraising) has remained stable over the same period (thus representing a progressively smaller percentage of the overall budget).

And to make one final quibble — we are looking at this organization’s four previous fiscal years.  The ALSA’s fiscal year ends Jan 31.  And the handy pie-chart above is taken from the Financial Report for the Fiscal Year Ending Jan 31 2014.  So when the writers of PoliticalEar’s piece are trying to alert the world that the majority of Ice Bucket Challenge donations aren’t going to be used for research, they’re basing it on last year’s budget.  Those numbers do not reflect, nor have any bearing on, the current year during which the Ice Bucket Challenge donations are being received.  Yes, the ALSA administration now faces the challenge of deciding how to optimize the truly astounding amount of financial support the organization has received this summer.  But the decision will have to be made openly and transparently (especially given the spotlight/microscope that has been focused on them as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge).

In sum:  the writers from PoliticalEar are, for some reason, claiming that the ALSA only intends to use 27% of Ice Bucket Challenge donations for research.  But, upon examination, this claim has absolutely zero basis in reality.

*****

There is at a positive moral to this story, however, which is that all of us should strive to be informed donors.  That means taking the time not just to visit an organization’s website, but to dig into the not-so-sexy details.  What do their financial statements look like?  What are the trends from year to year?  Do they even make multiple years’ worth of statements available on their website (hint: if they don’t, that’s a big red flag).  What is their overall mission, and is it one you are actually interested in, and committed to, supporting?

*****

Scrutiny is important.  Vital, even.  But there is a wide gulf between those who wish to do their due diligence, and those who are simply determined to find fraud and deceit around every corner.

 

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the email…

A little over a week ago I received a forwarded email, the content of which I found atrocious enough to warrant a written response.  The email addressed two issues:  health care — specifically, how amazing America’s system is; and President Obama’s cabinet — specifically, how few members of it held jobs in the private sector.

The section of the email pertaining to health care had this to say:

INTERESTING STATISTICS ABOUT HEALTH CARE

A recent “Investor’s Business Daily” article provided very interesting statistics from a survey by the

United Nations International Health Organization.

Percentage of men and women who survived a cancer five years after diagnosis:

U.S.              65%

England        46%

Canada         42%

Percentage of patients diagnosed with diabetes who received treatment within six months:

U.S.             93%

England       15%

Canada         43%

Percentage of seniors needing hip replacement who received it within six months:

U.S.             90%

England       15%

Canada         43%

Percentage referred to a medical specialist who see one within one month:

U.S.             77%

England       40%

Canada         43%

Number of MRI scanners (a prime diagnostic tool) per million people:

U.S.             71

England       14

Canada         18

Percentage of seniors (65+), with low income, who say they are in “excellent health”:

U.S.             12%

England        2%

Canada         6%

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want “Universal Healthcare” comparable to England or Canada .

The above is wrong on so many levels.

First, we’ll start with the fact that the text offers neither citations nor, at the very least, links to the article it’s referencing.  It assumes you will take the “facts” presented at face value – which would be a mistake.

Second, let’s take a look at some of these “facts”.

Investor’s Business Daily did indeed publish an article featuring statistics on health care – “How U.S. Health Care Really Stacks Up”.

This article does not, however, quote statistics from the UN International Health Organization.  Why?  Because such an organization doesn’t exist.  What does exist is the UN World Health Organization (WHO), which the IBD article does quote – but only to mention that the WHO ranked the U.S. health system as 37th in its 2000 World Health Report.

What the article also cites (and what is, presumably, the actual source of the email’s statistics) is a brief analysis published by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) – an organization that “develops and promotes alternatives to government regulation and control.”

The publication is “10 Surprising Facts about American Health Care” and, unlike the email it spawned, includes numerous, legitimate citations and makes a clearly presented and articulated argument.*

The ten facts, as published by the NCPA and reiterated by IBD, are these:

  • Americans have better survival rates than Europeans for common cancers
  • Americans have lower cancer mortality rates than Canadians
  • Americans have better access to treatment for chronic disease than patients in other developed countries
  • Americans have better access to preventive cancer screening than Canadians
  • Lower income Americans are in better health than comparable Canadians
  • Americans spend less time waiting for care than patients in Canada and the U.K.
  • People in countries with more government control of health care are highly dissatisfied and believe reform is needed
  • Americans are more satisfied with the care they receive than Canadians
  • Americans have much better access to important new technologies like medical imaging than patients in Canada or the U.K.
  • Americans are responsible for the vast majority of all health care innovations.

All of these items, in the context they are presented, are true.  But we should also note the conclusion to which the author of the paper (Scott Atlas, M.D. and professor at the Stanford University Medical Center) came:

Despite serious challenges, such as escalating costs and the uninsured, the U.S. health system compares favorably to those in other developed countries. (emphasis added)

The reason I quote his conclusion is to point out this – that the purpose of this short, but informative, paper is simply to say, “Yes, there are problems with our country’s health delivery, but let’s not criticize it beyond reason.”  It is not, in itself, a condemnation of the other countries’ systems; merely an informed defense of our own.  What it is also not is an argument against the health care reform legislation that was recently signed into law; but an insistence that as we debate what our system does wrong, we should also acknowledge what it does right.

Ultimately, then, what I received was an email containing (mis)information (very) loosely based on an article which itself refers to a policy paper that is actually pretty fair and reasonable.

What I find so objectionable about the whole affair is twofold:

 1.)   That while the source paper does provide substantial data allowing for a favorable assessement of the U.S. health care system, it ignores certain questions that would, rather starkly, reveal the weaknesses of our system.  For instance:  the number of emergency room visits that are a direct result of a lack in primary care coverage, as well as the cost of those visits to the insured public; the number of people who are unable to seek timely care due to cost; the percentage of catastrophic conditions that are a result of peoples’ inability to seek care; and the number of bankruptcies due to medical expenses.

 2.)   The resulting email manipulates all this information and concludes with an exhortation to resist “universal healthcare” comparable to the UK or Canada.  This manages to confuse the concept of universal healthcare (in which every citizen has some form of health coverage) with a single-payer system (in which, like the UK and Canada, the government is the sole holder and disburser of health coverage funds).  And, thankfully, the new health care reform law establishes nothing at all resembling the single-payer system that the UK and Canada have in place.  In fact, the notion of a single-payer system was never even on the table.  In deference to the conventional wisdom that ours is a center-right country, the most liberal  proposal considered was a “public option” – a federally administered insurance plan that would compete with private plans in the marketplace.  And even that didn’t make it into the final legislation.

I’m fine if people are opposed to parts – or even all – of the new health care law.  But I would prefer they base their opposition on actual facts.

* It should also be noted that, upon examination, the statistics listed in the email just barely come close to possibly resembling those in the actual NCPA paper.

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