Fri July 31, 2015 3:38 pm By Erica Grieder

No good deed goes unpunished. As a result of my stated interest in the ongoing showdown between Governor Greg Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board, I am now in possession of a 62-page-long document related to the situation, which I should probably read before weighing in further.

Since I promised you all a new post today, though, I’ll offer a brief comment on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as a Collin County grand jury is expected to start hearing evidence against him imminently, and may soon charge him with securities fraud. My full comments will be in a forthcoming issue of the magazine, and so my brief comment is just this: if you are surprised that Texas’s new attorney general was under investigation less than three months after he was sworn in as the state’s top law enforcement official, you have only yourself to blame, because Paxton (literally) admitted to a third-degree felony more than a year ago, between the Republican primary and the Republican primary runoff, as it happens. 

With that said, if the current proceedings have finally piqued your interest in potentially felonious attorneys-general of Texas, you may be interested in a couple of pieces from our archives. I’d recommend “The Man in the Black Hat,” Paul Burka’s National Magazine Award-winning 1984 two-parter on Clinton Manges, a crony of Jim Mattox (who was elected attorney general in 1982, indicted in 1983, acquitted in 1985, and re-elected, to acclaim, in 1986). Less favored by fate was Mattox’s successor, Dan Morales, who made it through his time in office okay but later saw his political future go up in smoke after pleading guilty, in 2003, to conspiracy and other crimes related to his work related to the state’s tobacco settlement. Lou Dubose laid out the story in this 2002 piece: “So What’s the Truth About Dan Morales?”

Thu July 30, 2015 3:39 pm By Erica Grieder

Apparently it’s easier than I thought to get a conspiracy theory started. I’m referring, of course, to the idea that Texas Governor Greg Abbott is in cahoots with the Church of Scientology, which was picked up by the national press, in the guise of Newsweek, earlier today.

This rumor arose in relation to Abbott’s veto of Senate Bill 359, which would have given hospital staff—doctors and whatnot—the ability to detain patients for several hours, if personnel deemed them a threat to the public safety. For emphasis, let me say that again: as far as I can tell the rumor arose in relation to Abbott’s veto, not as a result of it; the veto statement was issued on June 2nd. The proximate cause of the conspiracy came on July 14th, about six weeks later, with a curious story in the Texas Tribune that heavily implied it was the opposition of the Church of Scientology, via a shell group masquerading as a human-rights outfit, that spurred Abbott to veto the legislation, which had sailed through the Lege without difficulty. On July 23rd, the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News chimed in, and now here we are.

My take is as follows: Come on. Abbott is a Catholic. If I had to guess he probably thinks less of Scientologists than of LULAC (another group that opposed the bill). He’s also an attorney who spent twelve years as attorney general of Texas prior to becoming governor and, as such, is probably familiar with the intermittently discouraging reality that even if someone is mentally ill, their civil rights can’t be arbitrarily abridged, despite the fact that their concerned loved ones might wish the opposite could be allowed, and despite the fact that many doctors would be glad to appropriate as much authority over other peoples’ affairs as the state would grant them. Occam’s razor, people.

Further, it doesn’t matter why Abbott vetoed the bill; he’s the governor, and the Texas Constitution gives him the authority to veto bills for any reason at all, whether it be constitutional principle, sheer malice, or that his hand slipped on the rubber veto stamp. The line-item veto, though: that’s another story. A story for tomorrow. Stay tuned. 

Thu July 23, 2015 4:03 pm By Erica Grieder

As most of you have no doubt heard, national embarrassment Donald Trump invaded Texas today, bound for the city of Laredo, which is no doubt feeling a pang of nostalgia for the days when it was an independent republic, vulnerable to Mexico and Texas but at least not to draft-dodging, profiteering scions of privilege from New York.

Trump may have been hoping for a warm welcome from Rick Perry, because—as Abby Johnston explained earlier this month—he is apparently doing his best to boost our former governor’s presidential prospects. Alas, Rick Perry is not having it. Neither is Judith Zaffirini, Laredo’s longtime state senator, although she did take the time to offer Trump some useful economic and cultural information, which I am sure he will read in an unbiased frame of mind.  

As for me, I’d like to add the following thoughts on Trump: Trump is a grotesque and repulsive clown. He is not worth my time, or yours. But if you insist on caring what he thinks about Laredo—a city that is home to a couple hundred thousand Texans, which was settled before the United States or Mexico were even countries, and which Donald Trump has been spewing lies about for weeks on the basis of no knowledge or personal experience, perhaps because he delusionally believes that by doing so he is putting himself in “great danger”—have at it in the comments.

Tue July 21, 2015 10:23 pm By Erica Grieder

Over the past week questions have been building about the series of events that began with a routine traffic stop, on July 10th, and ended with the death of the driver. Sandra Bland, a young black woman from Illinois, had been preparing to start a new job at her own alma mater, Prairie View A&M, when she was pulled over by DPS Trooper Brian Encinia after failing to signal before changing lanes. During the course of the encounter, she was arrested on charges of assaulting a public servant, thus taken into custody at the Waller County Jail. Three days later she was found in her cell, hanging by a trash bag, not breathing.

This is obviously a bizarre and troubling story. Fortunately, law enforcement and elected officials seem to be treating it as such. On July 16th the FBI and the Texas Rangers announced that they would work together to investigate Bland’s death. DPS, for its part, issued a statement saying that on preliminary review, Encinia had violated department policy during the stop, and that he had been put on administrative leave pending further investigation. Yesterday the Waller County DA announced that although Bland’s death was initially ruled a suicide, they would now treat it like a murder investigation after hearing, from a number of people close to Bland, that she had not said anything to indicate suicidal intent. And earlier today, DPS released dashcam footage from Encinia’s car, which documents the entire encounter, although only from the perspective of the dashboard.

Having watched the video, I agree with state senator Royce West, who was among the officials who met in Prairie View for today’s roundtable, which was followed by a press conference: Bland did not deserve to be put in custody. At the beginning of the encounter, Bland was clearly annoyed, and I guess discourteous. But people sometimes do get irritated when they get nabbed for an inconsequential traffic violation. State troopers, one would think, are philosophical about that, and yet it was Encinia who escalated the situation. He requested that she put out her cigarette, and she declined, at which point he ordered her to get out of the car; after she objected and asked why, he opened the car door and reached inside, saying that he would “yank” her out. That’s the first point at which the supposed assault on a public servant could have occurred, and although the dashcam footage doesn’t show what happened inside her car, any physical contact would have been the result of Encinia encroaching on Bland, not the other way around.

I also agree with state representative Helen Giddings: “This young woman should be alive today.” Why isn’t she? That’s a question that the dashcam footage doesn’t clarify, and really couldn’t. We already knew that Bland ended up in the Waller County Jail as a result of a traffic stop. We should continue to examine what role her race played in the clearly disproportionate escalation of the traffic stop. It’s safe to posit that if not for her detention, she probably wouldn’t be dead. But her death, one would hope, wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the situation. And so I agree with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, too: Bland’s family and loved ones deserve answers; since it may take some time to provide them, the search should be handled as transparently as possible, wherever it may lead.

Tue July 14, 2015 7:55 pm By Erica Grieder

If you had told me, as recently as yesterday, that Planned Parenthood has been glibly putting some of its most vulnerable patients at undue risk, I would have been skeptical, on the basis that Planned Parenthood is an organization devoted to providing reproductive health care and defending women’s rights, and that the leaders of the organization are presumably sincerely committed to their own goals, even if they have some controversial beliefs about what that might mean in practice.

But that was yesterday. Today, one of these right-wing undercover video sting outfits released a video from a lunch with Deborah Nucatola, the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a practicing physician who works at one of the organization’s clinics in California. The activists were posing as potential clients, in the market for fetal tissue, and Nucatola explained in gruesomely blase detail that Planned Parenthood could help, and that their doctors have experience surgically extracting fetuses without crushing too many of the vital organs, and—I mean, I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to offer a few comments, even though it’s not a Texas-specific story, and really shouldn’t be understood as a political one.       

From a pro-life perspective, that is, the discussion in the video is morally appalling, obviously. But I don’t think many pro-choice people would disagree. The abortions Nucatola is discussing would be illegal in many states (including Texas, except in the event of a fatal fetal abnormality) even where a majority of people would describe themselves as pro-choice–or be described by angry conservatives as pro-abortion. Beyond the law, most Americans are personally opposed to late-term abortions, even if they think women should have the legal right to seek them under some circumstances; that’s why late-term abortions are rare, even where they’re legal. (According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1.4% of all abortions in the country in 2011 took place after the 20-week mark.)

But let’s set all that aside, and assume, for the purposes of discussion, that Planned Parenthood’s statement about the video is 100% true: that their sole purpose in fetal tissue donation is to facilitate medical research; that many of their patients want to donate such tissue and all of them who do so have fully consented to the arrangement; that Planned Parenthood doesn’t realize any financial gain from its role in this, and that any money they receive only helps defray costs; and that the video was selectively edited by ideologically motivated activists with a vested interest in making Nucatola look like Hannibal Lecter crossed with Kermit Gosnell. All of that may actually be true. Even so, what Planned Parenthood is doing here violates the stated ethical principles of Planned Parenthood. This is, again, an organization devoted to providing reproductive health care and defending women’s rights, and their statement points to problems on both fronts. 

First: supporting medical research is an honorable goal, and I can appreciate that donating fetal tissue might be a comfort to parents grieving the loss of an unborn child. Still, when paramedics arrive at a car crash, they don’t treat injuries differently based on whether the injured person is an organ donor, as far as I know. Similarly, a physician providing an abortion should be focused on the care that they are providing to the actual patient in the room, not managing the surgical procedure with a view to minimizing “crushing” that might inconvenience a researcher at some future date, as Nucatola describes.

Second: it’s a matter of common sense that a woman who’s decided to terminate a pregnancy isn’t likely to delay the procedure unless she has to. And as any advocate for women will tell you—at regular intervals, whether or not you asked—women in that position are typically more vulnerable than most: perhaps they didn’t have enough money for the procedure, or they had to travel some distance to access care, or they were under the controlling eye of a potentially abusive partner. That complicates Planned Parenthood’s assertion that all of their patients have given “full, appropriate consent” to donate their fetal tissue. Consent doesn’t mean much if it’s given out of guilt, or under suasion from one of the relatively few medical providers willing to perform a procedure that is controversial, stigmatized, and accordingly difficult to access. You’d think that Planned Parenthood, of all places, would be inclined to err on the side of caution.

When an organization like Planned Parenthood is caught up in controversy, there’s a natural tendency for its supporters, used to such controversies, to circle the wagons. In this case, I think that mentality would be counterproductive. Since we don’t live in a cartoon universe full of heroes and supervillains, the fetal tissue donation program can’t be as groteque or sinister as some right-wingers are describing it to be. Given Nucatola’s ballpark figures, for example, it hardly seems like the organization is making a killing (so to speak) in the lucrative market for dismembered babies. Still, it’s reasonable for people who support Planned Parenthood’s stated goals to have qualms about practices that undermine those goals, deliberately or not—even if pro-life activists are the ones who raised the alarm.