50.50: Explainer

We exposed ‘conversion therapy’, ‘abortion pill reversal’ and hate groups fundraising on Amazon – and much more

This is why feminist investigative journalism matters

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28 December 2021, 5.53am
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Nervously, N. picked up the phone and dialled the number on a flyer she had been given near an abortion clinic in the UK.

“We are in the United States, but we do help hundreds of women every day in the UK,” said a voice on the other end of the line.

A couple of hours later she was called back by a UK-based doctor, who prescribed her an unproven and potentially “dangerous” treatment known as ‘abortion pill reversal’.

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N. asked about the potential health risks of trying to ‘reverse’ a medical abortion, but the doctor told her not to worry: “At the end of the day, you live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital there and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help.”

This undercover assignment by one of our UK journalists was the start of a global investigation into how doctors supported by US Christian Right activists at Heartbeat International are providing women with a “dangerous” and controversial treatment that claims to ‘reverse’ medical abortions, in at least a dozen countries.

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Health experts call for action from regulators to protect women from spread of controversial method supported by US Christian Right activists

And it’s just one of our investigations this year that led to lawmakers taking action, health experts demanding change, and local and international organisations investigating our findings.

The UK medical regulator has taken action against the doctor by preventing them from practising medicine unsupervised, pending further investigation.

“This is hugely significant – there are women in the UK, right now, that may not be at risk of haemorrhaging because of this,” said Claire Provost, head of openDemocracy’s global investigations team.

Most recently, the health ministry in Russia said, after learning about our investigation, that it would consider the dangers of this controversial abortion ‘reversal treatment’.

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Exposing ‘conversion therapy’

The therapy session over Zoom with a licensed therapist in Costa Rica left our undercover reporter Stephania Corpi in turmoil. “Im straight, and I cant imagine how an LGBTIQ person might feel after talking to someone like that,” she explained. “That feeling of grief, pain, frustration, anguish – that they feel even more displaced.”

Stephania was part of our investigation into ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica, Guatemala and the US, where we found therapists connected to US ultra-conservative Christian Right groups ‘treating’ or offering to ‘treat’ our undercover reporters who posed as LGBTIQ people.

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These groups include Focus on the Family, founded in 1977 by the ultra-conservative psychologist James Dobson; Courage International, established in 1980 to persuade homosexual Catholics to follow a “chaste life”; and Exodus Global Alliance, the global wing of the disbanded and controversial ‘ex-gay’ movement Exodus International.

Leading health and legal experts said that openDemocracy’s findings were “blatantly unethical” and “graphic” examples of ‘conversion therapy’.

In Costa Rica, the Costa Rican College of Professional Psychology (CPPCR) is investigating the licensed therapists who we found providing these so-called therapies to our undercover reporters.

YouTube terminates ‘conversion therapy’ channel

While we were looking into anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ in Africa, one of our reporters came across videos of the controversial Nigerian televangelist pastor TB Joshua (now deceased) on YouTube.

In one video, Joshua hits a woman on the head. She falls to the floor. When she gets up, he hits her again. He tells her to call her “second”, a woman he refers to as her “wife”.

Joshua slaps and pushes the two women at least 16 times and tells them: “There is a spirit disturbing you. She has transplanted herself into you. It is the spirit of woman.”

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In response to our enquiries about TB Joshua’s controversial exorcisms, YouTube terminated his channel. Facebook says it has removed certain posts, but some remain

We asked YouTube whether the content of TB Joshua Ministries’ channel violated its community guidelines. The result? YouTube terminated the channel for violating its hate speech policy.

This was just the start of our investigation into this troubling anti-gay practice in Africa. What we found was perhaps even more disturbing. After collecting the testimonies of around 50 survivors of ‘conversion therapy’, we went undercover in clinics and hospitals in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. There, we were told they could offer the same kind of ‘therapy’.

And it turned out that more than half of these health facilities receive aid from international donor organisations. When we presented our findings to these organisations, many said that they would investigate and take action.

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Major NGOs that run clinics in Kenya and Tanzania also pledge action against ‘abhorrent’ practices to ‘change’ individuals’ sexual orientation

UK-based MSI Reproductive Choices stated that they had “launched an investigation and will take immediate action against anyone found to be involved in this abhorrent practice”.

The organisation later told us that “as a direct result of openDemocracy’s investigation, we are expanding our training resources to reinforce our commitment to client-centred care and to clarify the services that we will never offer or refer. These will ensure that team members are able to support all clients, including those from the LGBTQI+ community, and respond sensitively to requests for services.”

Following our investigation, Ciudadanos, a centre-Right political party in Spain, asked its country’s government whether any of its aid money could have supported projects that offer ‘conversion therapy’ overseas.

But there is more

“Feminist investigative journalism is not just a good idea, it is essential for the future prospects of our incomplete democracies – which require equality regardless of gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics,” Provost wrote.

We wish we didn’t need a feminist investigative team to cover these kinds of topics. But, unfortunately, investigative journalism often focuses on international finance, corrupt politicians and big business. And although these are important issues, leaving out organised campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTIQ people means that the wrongdoers can get away with it. As you can read above, the consequences can sometimes be deadly.

One of the reasons for this gap could be that women and LGBTIQ people are underrepresented in the media and especially in investigative journalism. Abortion misinformation and anti-LGBTIQ practices, for example, could perhaps simply not be on journalists’ radar because they aren’t directly hurt by them.

We exposed the fact that at least eight groups involved in the rally that led to the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January were fundraising via Amazon and PayPal. They were on our radar because we had already been tracking these anti-LGBTIQ and anti-women groups.

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Tech giants are under pressure to ‘sever all ties to hate groups and white supremacists’.

We uncovered how US conservative groups behind a Supreme Court legal battle that could shape the future of American abortion rights have spent at least $28m around the world between 2016 and 2019.

And that a Catholic group in Malawi used money from the US to support its campaign against a bill to allow legal abortion in cases of rape – after condemning proposed reforms as an imposition of “foreign cultures”.

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Groups behind a Supreme Court test case that threatens the constitutional right to abortion in the US are also targeting Europe and Latin America

And we dug through a series of documents released by WikiLeaks, originating from controversial ultra-conservative campaigning organisations in Spain. We found that anti-LGBTIQ Spanish group HazteOir battled Google to “suppress” reported links to a controversial Catholic secret society; and revealed the depth of the ties between leading Conservative Brexiteers and the global Christian Right, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ movements.

Documenting the resistance

In addition to investigating coordinated attacks against our rights, we also highlighted the work of feminist groups, activists and excluded groups around the world.

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From the transgender community in Kashmir to transgender activists in Georgia and Uganda. From abortion activists in Latin America and the UK, to Mexican women fighting for the legalisation of marijuana and Venezuelan women football players fighting for equal pay.

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We know that ultra-conservative and far-Right movements are increasingly operating across borders – so we must too. We know that the attacks against our rights are not temporary or short-term; nor are they unique to specific countries or regions.

That’s why we prioritise the voices of diverse women and LGBTIQ people: media and information act as a prism through which people see the world; they have the potential to amplify and entrench inequality, but also the power to create change.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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