Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Mississippi Decisively Rejects "Personhood" for Fertilized Eggs

Last night, Mississippi voters decisively rejected a ballot initiative to redefine fertilized eggs as people. As of Wednesday morning, the measure stood defeated by a margin of 58% to 42% with nearly all precincts reporting. This is a surprising result. On the eve of the vote, most observers expected the measure to pass.

November Sidney Award winner Irin Carmon takes a closer look at how Mississippi beat Initiative 26 in Salon. Grassroots activists, including rape survivors, doctors, parents by in vitro fertilization, and members of the clergy joined forces with national organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. It probably helped that a PersonhoodUSA spokesman predicted on national radio that Initiative 26 would ban the birth control pill.

As underwhelming as their performance was last night, this is a high water mark for the egg-as-person movement. If you can’t declare a fertilized ovum a full-fledged human being in Mississippi, you can’t do it anywhere in America. Similar proposals were defeated by 40-point margins in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. Undeterred by the overwhelming evidence, PersonhoodUSA has vowed to introduce similar measures in Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California in 2012.


Irin Carmon Wins November Sidney Award for Coverage of Mississippi "Personhood" Vote

I’m very pleased to announce that Irin Carmon of Salon has won the November Sidney Award for her coverage of a proposed amendment to the Mississippi constitution that would redefine a fertilized egg as a person. Carmon reported that the measure, billed as an anti-abortion initiative, would also ban some forms of birth control, and chart a course to challenge Roe v. Wade.

Mississippians vote today, Tuesday the 8th, on Initiative 26. Other states have voted on so-called “personhood” initiatives, but this is the first time such a measure stands a chance of passing. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have endorsed the measure. Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said last month that he’d support a hypothetical personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Carmon’s in-depth reporting from Mississippi shaped the national conversation on the Mississippi “personhood” vote. She was one of the first journalists to state plainly that the measure would ban not only abortion but also any form of birth control that destroys a fertilized egg.

Carmon exposed ambivalence and basic factual confusion among leading proponents of Initiative 26. Would the personhood amendment ban the Pill? Nobody would give Carmon a straight answer. The pro-personhood contingent has good reason to equivocate. The birth control pill is, after all, very popular. Then again, for many prospective supporters of ovum “personhood,” banning birth control is a feature, not a bug.

Medical science says that birth control pills work by suppressing ovulation, as evidenced by the fact that women who skip doses, and therefore ovulate on the Pill, can still get pregnant. High-dose birth control for emergency contraception (“the morning after pill”) works exclusively by suppressing ovulation. But there’s no guarantee that legislators interpreting a sweeping “personhood” amendment would be guided by the best science.

Read my interview with Carmon on the making of her prizewinning feature at The Backstory.

[Photo credit: brains the head, Creative Commons.]

A Rabbi and a Reverend Talk Personhood

Anti-choicers often claim that their opposition to abortion is based on Judeo-Christian teachings. They stake their claim to religious authority so loudly, so confidently, and so often that it’s easy to forget that their interpretations of scripture aren’t the only ones.

Elissa Strauss interviewed Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Reverend Chloe Breyer to find out what the Bible says about when life begins.

The anti-choice argument from Judeo-Christian texts rests on surprisingly shaky theological foundations.

Elissa correctly stresses that no one’s religious beliefs should dictate the law. And the Judeo-Christian tradition is just one among many. But there’s no question that a lot of people’s views on reproductive rights are influenced by what they assume their religion teaches on the subject.

As an atheist, I’m continually impressed by the marketing triumph of religious anti-choicers. They’ve managed to make their tenuous interpretation of scripture synonymous with “the religious perspective” on abortion.

[Photo credit: Zyada, Creative Commons.]

Inside the Mind of an Octopus

Sy Montgomery explores the minds of octopuses in a fascinating and beautifully written piece of science journalism for Orion Magazine:

I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.

Montgomery interviews octopus scientists, a scuba diving philosophy professor, and an aquarium volunteer who found his post-retirement calling as an octopus whisperer.

[Photo credit: hankplank, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News


  • “I am the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother!” Herman Cain proclaimed during an appearance at Americans for Prosperity, Friday. This delicious scoop comes from Dave Weigel of Slate.
  • Cain’s campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars of legally dubious in-kind contributions from Prosperity USA, a non-profit headed by Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, Mark Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed late last week. Block is also the former head of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit co-founded by the arch conservative Koch Brothers.
  • Nick Confessore of the New York Times reported that an outside lawyer would be looking into the Cain campaign’s finances to determine whether the tax-exempt Prosperity USA violated campaign finance laws by paying for a variety of expenses for the Cain campaign including iPads and a trip for Mark Block to meet David Koch.
  • In other campaign finance news, the downfall of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and his bankrupt brokerage firm MF Global may prove embarassing for President Obama, considering that Corzine raised at least $500,000 as an Obama bundler, according to Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam of the Washington Post. They note that MF Global recently wrote a clause into a bond issue promising to raise interest rates by 1% if Corzine was appointed to a post in the Obama administration. As MF Global went into the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, it was revealed that the firm had “lost track” of an estimated $633 million in client funds. The FEC is investigating whether MF Global gambled and lost other people’s money.

[Photo credit: Wandermule, Creative Commons.]



More on "Buy Here Pay Here" Used Car Dealerships

The third and final installment of Ken Bensinger’s investigation of so-called “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships ran today in the Los Angeles Times. Therein, Bensinger examines what alternatives there are for the clientele of BHPH dealerships, low-income buyers with bad credit who need a car to keep a job. Clear it With Sidney blogged about Parts 1 and 2 of this remarkable series yesterday.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]

Occupy the Lot?: Used Car Industry Hits New Moral Low as New Subprime Bubble Swells

These aren’t used cars so much as usury cars….

In a special three-part series, Ken Bensinger of the L.A. Times investigates the wildly profitable but little known world of “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships. These lots cater to a very specific clientele: People with terrible credit who need a car to hold a job.

In part 1, Bensinger explains the Buy Here Pay Here business model: sign, drive, default, repossess, and resell.

Faced with the choice between getting hosed buy a used car dealer and sleeping on the street, buyers will pay any price and accept financing on any terms. The dealers know it. Cars are priced above their Blue Book value and financed at an average interest rate of 20.7%, triple the national average.

Buy Here Pay Here dealerships are only nominally selling cars. Their real business is financing. And because they write their own loans, they are exempt from most forms of regulation. The “Pay Here” part of the name indicates that the buyer delivers payments in cash to the dealership.

You’d think that selling cars on credit to the country’s least reliable borrowers would be an unprofitable business. Not so. The average BHPH dealership turns a 38% profit.

The thing is, these dealers don’t care if customers make their payments. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. These cars come standard with hidden GPS trackers and remote ignition locks for easy repo. If a customer falls behind, the car is seized an resold. Bensinger found that cars were often resold at higher prices the second and third times around. 

In part II, Bensinger reveals that Wall Street is in on the racket. (At this point the reader may experience a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and an unshakeable sense of deja vu. That’s a common side effect of devastating investigative reporting. Do not be alarmed. Be enraged.)

Financial chopshops have sprung up on Wall Street to cash in on the BHPH boom. Loans originated by BHPH dealers are being securitized, meaning that financial wizards are chopping up these ultra-subprime auto loans and packaging them into securities for investors to buy. Some of these products are rated AAA.

This is the exact scam that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. Bad loans are being repackaged as securities backed by what are surely inflated ratings and pawned off on hapless investors.

These securities will turn into so much worthless paper if the BHPH industry can’t keep all the balls in the air. But neither the securitizers nor the used car dealers care because, they’ll have already made their money.

The third part of the series will run tomorrow. Sidney can hardly wait.

If the word gets out, Occupy the Lot could be the next phase of the Occupy Movement.

[Photo credit:, Creative Commons; visit on the web.]

Charlotte Allen Suggests Last-Minute Halloween Costume Idea: Misogynist Concern Troll

Unaccountably, the Washington Post The LA Times gave Charlotte Allen space to insinuate that skimpy Halloween costumes cause rape. Allen, a contributing editor at a conservative website called “Minding the Campus” is deeply concerned that the feminist anti-rape activists of SlutWalk and the Halloween-industrial-complex are accessories to sexual assault:

The other reality that feminists tend to deny is that rape and sexual desire are linked. Rape, in that view, is a purely political act of male dominance. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are under age 30 — that is, when women are at their peak of desirability.

Rape is a criminal act, and it is a crime most men won’t commit regardless of how short a girl’s skirt is or how lovely her legs. But the fact that rapists tend to target young women rather than grandmotherly types suggests that in the real rape culture (in contrast to the imaginary rape culture of some feminist ideology), the faux-hos of Halloween and their SlutWalker counterparts marching in their underwear — like a man walking at night with a bulging wallet — should be careful about where they flash their treasure.

The relevant question is not whether rapists desire their victims. No doubt many do. It would be surprising to learn otherwise, given that so many rapists are dating, or married to, their victims.

The question is whether a sexy Halloween costume increases a woman’s risk of rape. Allen thinks it does, but offers no evidence to support her thesis. You’d think that would be fatal to an op/ed blaming rape on “sexy witch,” “sexy nurse,” and Lady Gaga costumes, but Allen is determined to make up in handwaving what she lacks in data.

Her conjecture is that women under 30 get raped more often because they’re the sexiest women, and therefore, anything a woman does to look even sexier increases her risk of rape.

This hypothesis is rooted in the inaccurate stereotype that rape is an uncontrollable frenzy of lust that women provoke in men. That’s like imagining all theft as an uncontrolled frenzy of consumerism. Nobody doubts that thieves want what they steal, but we don’t assume that the sheer desirability of an unguarded car stereo pushes them over the edge.

But the fact that most rape victims under 30 tells us little about the motives of rapists. As feminist blogger and practicing attorney Jill Filipovic notes, most victims of non-sexual assault are also under 30:

But, funny thing: Younger people are also the most likely group to be the victims of aggravated, non-sexual assault (just so we’re all on the same page here, the term “aggravated assault” means “the crime of physically attacking another person which results in serious bodily harm and/or is made with a deadly or dangerous weapon such as a gun, knife, sword, ax or blunt instrument”). In fact, younger people are victimized by violent crime more often than older folks as a general rule. A person between the ages of 12 and 24 is six times more likely to be the victim of a robbery than a person over the age of 50; about half of people who report being the victims of aggravated assault are under the age of 25. Men are much more likely than women to be the victims of violent crime. In every age group, black people are the most likely to be the victims of violent crime.

So yes, it is true that younger women are more likely to be targeted for sexual assault than older women. But it’s not because of The Sexy — unless hormones and hard-ons are what are causing criminals to choose their (mostly male) targets for robbery and assault also.

It is disappointing that the Post Times gave Allen a platform for victim-blaming, and sloppily argued victim-blaming at that.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • Last week, Sasha Chavkin of the New York World broke the news that the public B110 bus line in Brooklyn was sending women to the back of the bus to accomodate the religious sensibilities of the local Hasidic community. On Tuesday, Chavkin reported that the private company that runs the B110 had promised to end sex segregation.
  • Ever wonder what happened to those scoundrels who nearly broke the capitalist system? No, not Occupy Wall Street, the bankers. Braden Goyette of ProPublica has an informative cheat sheet to bring you up to speed. 
  • Speaking of sleazy bankers, the updated edition of Ed Vulliamy’s 2011 book Amexica: War Along the Borderline is going on Sidney’s reading list. Vulliamy tells Democracy Now! how the Wachovia bank allegedly helped launder tens of millions of dollars for the Sinaloa drug cartel.
  • Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren tells Luke Johnson of the Huffington Post that she not only supports the aims of Occupy Wall Street, she laid much of the intellectual foundation for the movement. This is true. As a Harvard professor, Warren did pathbreaking research on consumer debt and middle class bankruptcy. That line is also an interesting piece of political self-presentation. The Occupy Movement is understandably wary of politicians trying to coopt their movement. But if Warren can sell herself as one of the original intellectual architects of the movement, she may create space to court the Occupy activists without seeming to coopt them.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Firedoglake Book Salon with Will Bunch and Lindsay Beyerstein, Thursday at 2:30 Eastern

At 2:30 Eastern, I’ll be hosting Pulitzer Prize-winner reporter and blogger Will Bunch at the Firedoglake Book Salon. We’ll be discussing Bunch’s new book, “The Battle for the Brooklyn Bridge.” Bunch tells the story of the mass arrest of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, an event which would prove to be a galvanizing moment for the Occupy movement.

Click here to join us from 2:30-4:00 Eastern. Bring questions.

[Photo credit: Adrian Kinloch, Creative Commons.]