The ACLU Suit Against U.S. Bishops, GOP Sensitivity to Women, and HPV Misinformation


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Young Lakota

Chris Hayes on GOP sensitivity

Mark Jacobs provides a bad example

Rush Limbaugh displays some sensitivity

Katie Couric walks it back some

Katie Couric’s HPV vaccine show

Unsurprisingly, the Christian right isn’t too happy with The Hunger Games

Transcript

On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be talking to Brooke Tucker from ACLU Michigan about their lawsuit against the [U.S. Conference of] Catholic Bishops. The Republican Party tries to become more sensitive to women without actually changing policy, and Katie Couric airs an irresponsible program on the HPV vaccine.

PBS’ Independent Lens series featured a documentary called Young Lakota about three young people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota going through a political wakening after Cecelia Fire Thunder declared that she would open an abortion clinic on the reservation if the state banned abortion.

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Fire Thunder was impeached for this move, and the film follows young activists as they deal with the fallout.

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As if giving a gift to Twitter comedians the world over, Politico recently reported that the Republicans are now offering a class for male candidates on how to talk to and about women, especially if they’re running against a female candidate. Indeed, Twitter went quite nuts with it, spending a day offering sarcastic suggestions. But it’s easy to see why the Republicans are trying things out like sensitivity training and learning not to call your female opponent a “broad” or make fun of her for wearing high heels. Chris Hayes explained the serious problems that the Republicans are facing in elections as female voters, who vote more than men, turn away from the Republican Party.

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To be clear, I don’t think the people who work campaigns actually believe that they’ll be able to convince the majority of women to vote Republican, in light, as Chris [Hayes] said, of the policy differences that the majority of women have with Republicans. Part of it is reproductive rights, as polling data shows women’s votes are more influenced by a candidate’s position on that issue than men’s votes are. But the blunt fact of the matter is that a stray, insensitive comment can lose you just enough voters to turn an election, even if you have the same policies as a winner who manages to be more evasive about his sexism in public. Todd Akin would be a recent example. He’s not all that different from a lot of Republicans on his preferred abortion policies, but that “legitimate rape” comment lost him some votes, probably enough to lose him the election. So while it pains me to see rhetoric elevated over policy, it’s actually a smart political move. They don’t need to win over most women. Just a handful enough to push candidates over the top.

However, Chris [Hayes] is right to say that knowing you have to be more quote-unquote “sensitive” and actually performing the job are very different things. A journalist, inspired by the Politico article, asked Speaker John Boehner about this issue, and his answer was quite telling.

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A word to the wise: If you want to appear more “sensitive.” start by not calling women “females.” It’s grating and seems to reduce women to animals, which is why you almost always hear that usage in the mouths of men who haven’t really considered at any length the possibility that women are as human as they are. This is on a remedial level here. Creating the perception of sensitivity starts and does not end with learning a few basic rules about how to talk about people using the words they tend to prefer. But Boehner’s remarks, at least, didn’t engage in any negative stereotypes about women. Sadly, Republican Senate candidate Mark Jacobs did fall into that trap.

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He made two major mistakes. One, engaging the stereotype that women are more “emotional” than men, which tends to carry the insinuation that women are less rational. Second of all, trotting out the “I know women, I married one and fathered one” line. Just don’t. It makes it sound like you live in a bubble where the only women you interact with are direct relations. It’s also insulting, because you’re implicitly comparing yourself to some other, unnamed man who doesn’t know any women. That is, a man who doesn’t exist, because, uh, women and men do not actually live segregated lives. People are going to start wondering where you got it in your head that you need to be congratulated for having basic communication with actual women, when, for most people, talking to women is roughly as remarkable as having a TV in your house or, perhaps, breathing air. So just avoid.

But no matter how much Republican politicians can learn to speak more sensitively—and they should start by dropping that word, too—they will always have to deal with the fact that their biggest spokesperson on the radio says stuff like this:

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Sometimes I waver between wanting Rush Limbaugh to go away and appreciating him for being eager, time and time again, to just come right out and explain, in blunt language, what motivates the anti-feminist movement. Today, I’m in the latter camp. But check back with me again tomorrow.

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Insert interview

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Katie Couric is usually, as far as I know, a fairly responsible journalist when it comes to health-care issues. She famously went on air to get her colon tested after her husband died of colon cancer, which was a stunt that really did draw attention nationwide to how common and deadly that disease is. While cervical cancer is not nearly as widespread or deadly in the U.S., in no small part because the Pap smear is so effective at catching it early, it still kills 4,000 women a year. Which is why I was surprised to see Couric have a show about the supposed “controversy” over the HPV vaccine.

Now, there are some legitimate debates in medical science over whether or not the vaccine has been overrated as a tool to slow the disease, though it’s worth noting that both the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend the vaccines for both boys and girls. Those debates, however, will likely be resolved as more data comes in. But Couric didn’t represent that debate, not really. Instead, she made it a debate over whether or not the vaccine is dangerous, which is not actually a controversy in the world of medicine and science. It’s like having a debate over whether or not unicorns or, say, global warming is real. One side just doesn’t have an argument. The scientific evidence on this front is concrete: While there are very rare cases of side effects to the vaccine, the risks are relatively small, small enough to say that it’s quite safe. Far safer than many ordinary things we do in the course of a day, like crossing streets and driving in cars, for sure.

But Couric brought on two mothers, both deeply involved in the anti-vaccination movement and one daughter to tell a bunch of scare stories about the vaccine. The first mother blames her daughter’s death on the vaccine.

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This is incredibly frustrating, because as bad as you feel for this woman—and I feel terrible for her—the fact remains that there’s no reason to believe her death was caused by the shot. Indeed, the mother admits that her daughter’s death is due to undetermined causes. There are very rare cases of people having allergies to vaccines, but the symptoms show up within minutes, or at the most, hours after getting the shot. There’s no mechanism by which a vaccine can start causing symptoms days later, much less take 18 days to kill you. In that time, she could have encountered dozens of things, hundreds really, that are more likely suspects in her death. The ugly truth of the matter is sometimes people die and we don’t know why. It’s underhanded of Couric to use an emotional ploy like this, because most people are going to feel it’s unseemly to quote-unquote “attack” a grieving mother by pointing out that she just doesn’t have her facts straight.

The other mother had a daughter who was still alive, and it’s a little easier to see all the question marks that should be around their claims that the vaccine is dangerous.

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To be blunt, her story sounds like a lot of people with undiagnosed chronic illnesses that many experts believe are likely undiagnosed depression or some other disease that, for whatever reason, the doctors and/or the patients aren’t willing to accept are the likely causes. The doctor-shopping is a big, red flag. While there are bad doctors out there and getting a second opinion is smart in many cases, if you’re running around for years looking for a doctor to tell you what you want to hear, that’s bad. Doctors are there to accurately diagnose you, not tell you what you want to hear. There is no mechanism, again, that would cause a vaccine to do this. Vaccines are just dead viruses that teach your antibodies to recognize live viruses. The HPV vaccine is no different from any other vaccine in this regard. Both the mothers on the show are involved with the anti-vaccination movement, and a quick bout of research shows that their organizations and websites promote all sorts of nonsense and quackery, as well as the work of discredited and disbarred doctor Andrew Wakefield.

Couric also had on a doctor who, while she formally represents herself as someone who is just saying the vaccine is overrated, in reality was there to add credence to these women’s stories. Indeed, she directly cited their stories as evidences of the supposed dangers of the vaccine, which is alarmist and frankly untrue. Then, finally, Dr. Mallika Marshall, was the only person they brought on to talk about the actual, you know, facts. She got a sliver of the time as the distraught mothers.

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She went on to explain that the actual side effects of the vaccine are slight: Shots hurt, there might be a short, low grade fever. And there’s some teenagers who faint when they get shots. In other words, it’s shot-related stuff. Shots suck. But not as much as getting the virus sucks. It was a blast of good sense, but unfortunately, I suspect much of the audience wasn’t hearing it. Good sense is not as compelling on TV as a tragic story, no matter how many holes it has in it. So shame on Katie Couric for putting her thumb on the scale this way. There’s a legitimate discussion to be had about vaccines, but the truth of the matter is that if you exclude all the people who are making false claims and emotional appeals that aren’t rooted in fact, the pro-vaccine side wins this debate in a walk.

Katie Couric did walk it back, admitting that she didn’t emphasize the safety and efficacy of the vaccine enough on Huffington Post, though she didn’t offer a full apology. The link will be in show notes, so you can judge for yourself.

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And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, let’s panic because the biggest movie in America has a female lead edition. Yes, someone alerted Christian right radio host Kevin Swanson to the existence of the latest Hunger Games movie, and he is so upset.

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Needless to say, there are a lot of men in The Hunger Games. About half the characters in the movie are men. But I guess if women are allowed to be equal characters to men in a story, then that’s as good as getting rid of all the men. Man, sometimes I’m astonished at how weak and fragile anti-feminists think men are, that they’ll just fold up and go away if women are given a modicum of power.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on Twitter: @amandamarcotte