Study: U.S. Ban On Aid To Foreign Clinics That ‘Promote’ Abortion Upped Abortion Rate

A 19-year-old woman talks with nurse Valeria Zafisoa at a traveling contraception clinic in eastern Madagascar run by the British nonprofit group Marie Stopes International.

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Samantha Reinders for NPR

When it comes to sending U.S. aid to poor countries every Republican President from Ronald Reagan through Donald Trump has imposed a rule: Foreign aid groups are prohibited from getting U.S. assistance for family planning unless they promise not to “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.” That includes providing patients with referrals or information about the procedure, even if those activities are funded by non-U.S. government sources. (Trump’s version of the funding ban has gone even further – applying to aid for virtually all global health services, not just family planning.)

Opponents of abortion rights have long advocated for the ban – known as the Mexico City policy after the city where it was first announced in 1984 – on the grounds that it ensures that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used even indirectly to fund abortions overseas.

But a new study in the journal The Lancet suggests that the Mexico City policy has actually increased the rate of abortions by about 40 percent in the countries studied – likely because the funding ban caused a reduction in access to contraception and a consequent rise in unwanted pregnancies.

How do the study’s authors come to that conclusion?

First they make use of the fact that the two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, each lifted the funding ban while they were in office. This means that over the 20 years from 1995 to 2014, there were three distinct periods: From 1995 through 2000 (during which Clinton was president) the funding ban was not in place. From 2001 through 2008 — George W. Bush’s term as president — the funding ban was in place. And then from 2009 through 2014, under Obama, the ban was again lifted. The researchers looked at what happened to abortion rates in 26 sub-Saharan African countries over those years.

Of course, abortion rates could have changed during those two decades for reasons wholly unrelated to U.S. funding policy. But in an effort to factor out that possibility, the researchers divided the 26 countries into two groups: In the first are countries that received the highest amount per person of U.S. family planning aid. In the second group were the countries that received the lowest amount.

The idea is that countries receiving a large amount of aid would likely be more vulnerable to changes in the policies governing U.S. aid. So by comparing what happened to the abortion rates of those more aid-dependent countries with the abortion rates of countries that are otherwise similar but less dependent on U.S. money for family planning, the researchers believed they could better isolate the impact of the funding ban on abortion rates.

In addition to finding that the ban produced a 40 percent increase in the country’s typical abortion rate during the period when the Mexico City policy was in place, the authors found a 14 percent decrease in the use of contraception and a 12 percent increase in pregnancies.

The study doesn’t offer proof of the link between those shifts. But co-author Nina Brooks of Stanford University says it seems likely that aid groups unable or unwilling to comply with the abortion restrictions on U.S. funding ended up losing U.S. aid dollars and therefore cut back on their activities, which included distributing contraception.

“So we speculate the mechanism that drove the increase in abortions was the reduction in supply of contraception,” says Brooks. “If you lower the contraceptive supply, then there are more unintended pregnancies, and then more abortions.”

The study offers some of the most “compelling” evidence to date of the impact of the Mexico City policy says Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking the worldwide effects of Trump’s version of the funding ban.

Previous studies on the impact of the policy have been limited to shorter periods of time and smaller numbers of countries. And most of these reports essentially amount to anecdotal accounts of how much money particular aid groups have lost as a result of the ban and to what extent this caused them to cut back on family planning activities.

“This is the largest empirical study of the Mexico City policy to date,” says Kates.

But Connor Semelsberger, legislative assistant at the Family Research Council, which has long supported the Mexico City policy, says he finds the study unconvincing because it did not delve into what he argues are key data points — such as which aid groups were operating in the affected countries and how much the amount of U.S. aid changed during the years studied. “I was really wanting more information,” he says.

Study co-author Grant Miller of Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research says the larger takeaway should matter to people on all sides of the abortion debate. “Regardless of what people personally believe about abortion, our evidence is consistent with what aid organizations [on the ground] have been saying, which is that this [Mexico City policy] leads to a pretty big increase in abortions.”

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Veggie Surprise: Teeth Of Ancient Crocs Reveal Some Likely Ate Plants

An artist has reconstructed what ancient crocodile ancestors looked like, including some that likely ate plants.



Jorge Gonzalez


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Jorge Gonzalez

Modern crocodiles can trace their lineage back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. If you picture that crocodile ancestor, way back in the Cretaceous period, what do you imagine it snacking on? Maybe a fish or a bird?

Think again. Scientists say it’s more likely it was chomping on prehistoric flowers or other plants. A new study in Current Biology has found these ancient crocodile cousins actually evolved into plant-eaters at least three times, and probably more.

It started with a paleontology graduate student at the University of Utah puzzling over some strange-looking teeth of the crocodile cousins (known as crocodyliforms, or crocs for short).

“The fact that so many croc teeth look nothing like anything around today just absolutely fascinated me,” Keegan Melstrom tells NPR.

Modern crocodiles, which eat meat, have distinctive sharp, pointy teeth. Take a look at the chompers on this Nile crocodile, for example:

Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) have sharp, pointy teeth, unlike some of their ancient relatives.

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Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

But Melstrom says he was finding examples from prehistoric times when crocs had more complicated teeth – more grooves and ridges than modern crocodiles.

“Animals that eat plants have high levels of dental complexity and animals that eat meat have really low levels of dental complexity,” he says. He and a colleague used a technique that compared 146 teeth from a number of different kinds of extinct crocs to living animals to try to determine what they ate.

“Many of the teeth of extinct crocs have equal or much greater complexities than living plant-eating lizards, and so that’s what tells me that these animals are probably very likely eating plants,” Melstrom adds.

Plant eaters have more complicated teeth because plant material is often harder to digest than meat, he says. “So the more you can break down plant material prior to a chemical digestion, the more nutrients you can suck out of that food.”

Three-dimensional images of modern and ancient crocs show how carnivores have simpler teeth than herbivores.



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Keegan Melstrom

The team found examples of crocs that were probably herbivores all over the world – in China, Tanzania, Madagascar, North America and Europe.

As Melstrom carried out the research, he was looking for patterns that might help explain why the ancient crocs repeatedly evolved into plant eaters.

One initial idea had been that they became herbivores when there were no mammals around – but then they found that some lived alongside mammals. They also lived in wildly different environments: “Some of them lived on islands and other ones lived on continent interiors and some lived in deserts and others lived in floodplains.”

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, there isn’t a single feature that allows for herbivorous crocs to appear,” he says. “Currently it seems like there are lots of different environments that are totally suitable for herbivorous crocs.”

It’s not clear what kind of plants they ate, though Melstrom says many of them appeared during the Cretaceous period, which is when flowering plants began to flourish. So, a mental image of a fierce-looking croc munching some pretty flowers is plausible, he says.

And it’s also worth noting that while the herbivore crocs appear to have vanished by the end of the Cretaceous period, Melstrom says their modern relatives do not completely avoid plants.

Nobody would call them omnivores, he says. These are serious meat eaters. “But it is fascinating that, you know, sometimes an alligator wants to eat a piece of fruit as it’s lying around, and it does it,” Melstrom adds. “So clearly, there is this ability to digest plant material is to some degree still there in their physiology.”

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NASA Will Send A Drone To Buzz Around Saturn’s Largest Moon

This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon, Titan.

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A drone called Dragonfly will be buzzing around Saturn’s largest moon in 2034, if all goes according to plan.

That’s because NASA has picked a mission to the icy moon Titan for its next major foray out into the solar system.

“Dragonfly will be the first drone lander, with the capability to fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday as the agency unveiled its plan.

Titan fascinates scientists because it’s so similar to our own planet — even though it’s far colder, at -300 degrees Fahrenheit. Like Earth, it has clouds, lakes and rivers. On Titan, however, these are made of liquid methane instead of water.

Titan was previously visited by the Huygens probe that was delivered by the Cassini spacecraft. That mission, in 2005, gave researchers an idea of what to expect when they targeted Titan with Dragonfly.

NASA’s Dragonfly mission will launch in 2026, but it will take eight years to get to Titan. Once it reaches the moon, Dragonfly will then spend about two and a half years making a series of short flights, flying with the help of eight rotors.

Dragonfly will gradually venture from dune fields to a large crater so that scientists can take measurements at different spots, analyzing the moon’s surface and atmosphere.

The mission will be led by Elizabeth Turtle, of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

“We’re absolutely thrilled and ready to jump on it and get going to go to Titan,” Turtle said on a NASA webcast. “Titan is just a perfect chemical laboratory to understand prebiotic chemistry, the chemistry that occurred before chemistry took the step to biology.”

Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has a thick atmosphere. In it, chemical reactions create complex organic molecules. “And then they drift down out of the atmosphere to the surface almost like a light snow,” says Curt Niebur, lead program scientist for NASA’s New Frontiers Program. “And it’s that kind of complicated organic synthesis that really drives our interest towards Titan.”

Dragonfly’s cameras will be able to take pictures as it flies over the moon’s strange surface, adds Niebur.

“We will actually get the experience as if we were riding along with Dragonfly, looking down at this alien yet very familiar kind of surface that has these rivers and mountains,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a tremendous experience for the public.”

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How Drag Queens Have Sashayed Their Way Through History

Drag queens hold a feather boa in an attempt to break the Guinness World Records title for the longest feather boa during a celebration of Pride Month in New York City’s Times Square on June 20.

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A man struts through the Los Angeles Convention Center wearing a mermaid-style gown, decked out with pink ostrich feathers. No one bats a fake eyelash.

He is just one of more than 60,000 people who streamed into the convention center in May for RuPaul’s DragCon, the country’s biggest drag queen convention, according to its organizers. Fabulous outfits, high-heeled pumps and colorful wigs filled the hall.

Loud and proud, drag culture is having a moment.

“Drag has arrived at the big kids’ table. People are finally acknowledging it as an art form to be reckoned with,” says Randy Barbato, co-executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the TV show that has helped push drag culture into the mainstream.

Though its mainstreaming might be a recent thing, drag has a long and complex history.

“In ancient Greece, men were playing female roles,” says Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business. “In Shakespearean times, it was the same thing. In the kabuki tradition in Japan, it was going on. In minstrel shows they had a drag queen. In vaudeville, in burlesque, there’s always been someone cross-dressing for work.”

From RuPaul’s Drag Race to Wigstock to DragCon, drag is clearly having a big moment.@samsanders dug deep into the makeup case of drag culture’s history to find out just how we got here.https://t.co/epMUyWQ4PC

— It’s Been A Minute (@NPRItsBeenAMin) June 25, 2019

DeCaro traces the modern drag movement back to Julian Eltinge, an American vaudeville performer, singer and actor in the early 20th century. Eltinge sang as a female impersonator, or “femme mimic,” but emphasized his masculinity offstage.

Back then, performers like Eltinge fought against “homosexual panic” by making clear that they were men in women’s clothing, to not fool audience members. (Today, drag queens are closely linked to the queer community, though not all of them are gay.)

In the 1950s and ’60s, troupes of drag performers toured the U.S. — even as they existed in a “legal in-between,” since people could still be arrested for dressing as the opposite sex.

During the television era, immensely popular comedian Milton Berle followed in Eltinge’s tradition, wearing dresses for comedic effect while making no effort to hide the much-speculated-about “python in his pants.”

“Basically, a lot of drag in television, really up until RuPaul’s Drag Race pretty much, was take the straightest, hairiest, ugliest guy, put him in a dress, and a straight guy will fall in love with him,” DeCaro says. “That’s the story always.”

Milton Berle, in drag, performs a skit with Bob Hope during taping of the Bob Hope Buys NBC special at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., in 1985.

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Next came Flip Wilson, another TV drag personality of note and the first African American to host a successful TV variety show. His character “Geraldine Jones” became a nationwide hit and famously popularized the phrase “What you see is what you get.”

Then, the 1980s ushered in a more alternative vibe — embodied by the scene in New York — and marked a turning point for drag.

DeCaro says the edgy, vulgar, playful ethos of RuPaul and modern drag queens grew out of Wigstock, an outdoor drag festival in Manhattan’s East Village.

Drag Queen Cloud performs at Wigstock in New York in 1994.

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Paul Hurschmann/Associated Press

After Wigstock, RuPaul became a star in the drag community. And the rest is history. The modern drag movement, spurred by RuPaul, seeks to defy and deconstruct expectations of “normal.”

“To be a drag queen is to fly your freak flag, to live your life out loud, to not let other people dictate normal or to not edit yourself so that you fit in with other people,” says Fenton Bailey, another co-executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “So it’s very much … a big, bold, brave statement of individuality.”

D.J. Pierce, known professionally as Shangela, is a popular drag queen and former Drag Race contestant. He has used the medium to think about his sexuality.

“Becoming a drag entertainer and really embracing that helped me to embrace who I was as a gay person even more,” Pierce says.

“It’s kind of like another coming out, almost. To walk into a room … you learn how to let go of those feelings of ‘I need to please others,’ ” he says. “You just get this heightened sense of confidence.”

Shangela performs during the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards Los Angeles on March 28 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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Rich Fury/Getty Images for GLAAD

Shangela appeared in 2018’s A Star is Born and thinks that the mainstreaming of drag is a positive. In the film’s pivotal meet-cute scene, Lady Gaga is “discovered” while performing in a drag bar.

Yet women who dress as drag queens or kings aren’t having the same cultural moment.

Maya Durham performs as a drag king in Los Angeles, under the name Malcolm Xtasy, and she wants to see the drag movement welcome more women. She thinks that the lack of a place for women is related to gender norms and misogyny and hopes the movement will come to incorporate drag kings.

“I don’t want to see queens knocked down from the level that they’re at; I want to see kings rise up to the same level,” Durham says.

As Pride Month comes to an end, drag kings and queens continue to sashay and stride across the big screen, festivals and pop culture, spotlighting drag’s rich history.

“I think that’s what happens when drag starts to go mainstream,” Pierce says. “All of a sudden, you’re watching The View and there are three drag queens on there and it’s not a joke. Yes, we’re here, we’re queer and you better deal with it. ‘Cause we ain’t going nowhere.”

Anjuli Sastry produced and Jordana Hochman and Alexander McCall edited this episode for broadcast.

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‘The Plagiarists’ Ponders Authenticity, Inauthentically

Not everything is what it seems in The Plagiarists, a lo-fi indie drama directed by Peter Parlow.

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When we first meet Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), their car has broken down on a wintry day in a rural area, and they’re bickering about what to do. The thirty-something couple at the center of The Plagiarists is always squabbling about something, which is part of the joke. This is a cool, ironic movie about people are perpetually uptight and earnest.

The story’s fundamental crisis arrives in the second of two chapters, but is sparked by something that happens in the first. Anna is a copy editor and aspiring novelist; Tyler a freelance cameraman and would-be filmmaker. They’re broke, so they’re relieved when Clip, an older African American man, offers to help. Played by Parliament-Funkadelic vocalist-keyboardist Michael “Clip” Payne, the duo’s benefactor provides a place to stay the night and the phone number of a mechanic who works cheap.

Clip’s house is modest, but full of wonders and mysteries. A young blond boy is there, playing videogames and skipping the dinner Anna makes; his presence is never explained. Of more interest to Tyler is a closet full of obsolete video gear, including a 1988-vintage camera. (It’s just like the one with which cinematographer, editor, and co-writer James N. Kienitz Wilkins shot this low-def, square-format flick.)

While Tyler tinkers, Clip engrosses Anna with tales of his childhood in a remote frozen land. (Not Norway, which is mentioned in passing several times, but Michigan.) His reminiscence culminates in a long, poetic monologue that awes the fledgling author.

About six months later, Anna and Tyler are headed back to the same area to visit their friend Allison (Emily Davis), who’s offscreen in the first episode. While Tyler drives, the two quarrel, Anna reads a trendy book, and the radio plays an NPR film review. Then Anna comes to a passage that’s very familiar: It’s the supposed boyhood memory Clip delivered the night he hosted her and Tyler.

Anna is agitated by the discovery, although Tyler and, later, Allison are less concerned. For Anna, the revelation that Clip’s story was not his own seems to throw everything and everyone into doubt. The movie is titled The Plagiarists, after all, not The Plagiarist.

Who’s faking what? Well, director Peter Parlow and the screenwriters — Robin Schavoir is the other one — are simulating “mumblecore,” that micro-budget indie-film genre characterized by small casts, limited locations, and dialogue that’s talky, aimless, and seemingly improvised.

The Plagiarists might be classified as mumblecore, but Kaminsky, Tyler and Payne couldn’t have riffed off each other for the simple reason that all three weren’t filmed together. Payne’s scenes were shot separately, which is why he never appears in the same shot as the other two.

In a sense, this is an essay film. The four principal characters discuss a range of issues, from sperm banks and sex trafficking to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Dogme ’95 manifesto and the relative value of cinema and literature. (The last subject is addressed mostly in an epilogue in which one actor speaks but none are glimpsed.) In its end credits, the film footnotes sources for the chatter, and reveals that the score is stock music obtained from a website.

While such Brechtian gambits are intriguing, they’d be more effective if the movie were actually fun to watch. But Anna and Tyler are too querulous to be good company — or, for that matter, a believable couple. And Anna’s reaction to Clip’s monologue is not plausible, since his rap sounds like what it is: recitation, not conversation. The Plagiarists ponders authenticity, yet its characters and conflicts feel synthetic.

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