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. 

Thu July 9, 2015 12:14 pm By By Paul Burka

In April 2012, I wrote a column about the Abigail Fisher case, an affirmative-action lawsuit in which Fisher, a Anglo student from Sugar Land, sought admission to the University of Texas as an undergraduate. I wrote:

The ultimate question is not one of law. It’s one of politics: Does the court dare turn back the clock on minority advancement and squelch the aspirations of a new generation of young Americans?

I also made the point then that the weakness in the case for admitting Fisher to UT was not about whether she should be admitted because she had better grades than certain minority students. I believed then and I believe now that Fisher’s academic record, though solid, was not strong enough to guarantee automatic admission to the University of Texas in the first place. The U.S. Supreme Court should pay close attention to Fisher’s academic record as it debates whether to eliminate race as a consideration for acceptance at public universities.

Thu July 9, 2015 9:21 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

On the afternoon of April 16, 1903, people from all over Texas gathered on the lawn of the Capitol to dedicate a monument to the Confederate war dead. The Santa Fe Railroad had offered discount tickets for anyone wanting to make the trip. The Dallas Morning News reported that the dedication “was preceded by one of the largest parades ever seen in Austin.” The monument was a gift to the state from the Camp John B. Hood, United Confederate Veterans.

A reception followed in the Senate, and then the final exercises were held in the House chamber, featuring a speech by former Confederate postmaster John H. Reagan, the recently retired chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. “He declared that the Confederates were neither traitors nor rebels, but had been forced to vindicate themselves when the majority in the national Government trampled over their constitutional rights,” the News reported.

Reagan spoke several days later in Fort Worth and said there had been a “systematic falsification of the great facts of history,” the Star-Telegram reported. “Slavery he said was the occasion but it was not strictly true to say that it was the cause of the war. Sectional jealousy, greed of gain and the lust of political power in his opinion led to the great struggle.”

So was this statue on the Capitol grounds meant to honor Texans who fought in the Civil War or was it an homage to the Confederacy?

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