Imprisoning the Messenger

There are none so blind as those who will not look

Those behind the prosecution of the Planned Parenthood/StemExpress sting videographers might be surprised by the stunning parallels with an earlier case: that of pioneering investigative journalist William T. Stead, imprisoned for exposing the horrors of human trafficking of girls into forced prostitution more than 130 years ago.

Stead was drawn into the anti-trafficking crusade by Bramwell Booth, son and successor to Salvation Army founder William Booth, and his wife Florence. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were routinely lured into the sex trade by ads for domestic service, as well as sold to procurers by their parents. Thousands of young English girls were routinely bought and sold for brothels worldwide, and while Florence had been saving girls individually, the Booths realized that to stop the trade they would need powerful allies.

Booth turned to his friend William T. Stead, the crusading editor of the influential Pall Mall Gazette. Stead hatched a plot to “buy” a girl to show how easily and commonly it was done.

When approached through an intermediary-procurer, the alcoholic mother of 13-year old Eliza Armstrong readily agreed to sell her daughter for £5.

Eliza was taken to a midwife and abortionist to have her virginity attested, and then turned over to her “purchaser,” Stead. Stead immediately gave her into the custody of Booth, and she was sent into protective hiding with a Salvationist family in France.

Stead launched a series of articles blasting trafficking of young girls into prostitution, including lurid details of the regular raping of young virgins by wealthy customers and an anonymized account of his purchase of Eliza, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon:

The “Maiden Tribute” was an instant hit. While W.H. Smith & Sons, who had a monopoly on all the news stalls, refused to sell the paper due to its lurid and prurient content, volunteers consisting of newsboys and members of the Salvation Army took over distribution. Even George Bernard Shaw telegraphed Stead offering to help. Such was the demand for the paper that crowds gathered in front of the Pall Mall Gazette offices fighting tooth and nail for a copy. Second-hand copies of the paper sold for as much as a shilling—twelve times its normal price.

And so the uproar began. Politicians and the public were in full force, decrying the practice of child prostitution and calling for new legislation. With the age of consent in Britain 13, defenders of prostitution claimed the young girls had entered the trade voluntarily.

Other newspapers, including the venerable Times, attacked the messenger, Stead, quickly uncovering the fact that he was the anonymous purchaser portrayed in the series.

And so Stead, Bramwell Booth, the procurer, and the midwife were brought before the court on charges of the assault and abduction of Eliza Armstrong. Stead was convicted on technical grounds that he had failed to first secure permission for the “purchase” from the girl’s father, and served three months in prison.

Last year, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt set out to expose using today’s investigative journalism tactics the unholy trade between Planned Parenthood and StemExpress in unborn baby body parts.

The videos they released included lurid images and details, including shots of the actual body parts in Planned Parenthood’s labs, Planned Parenthood officials and technicians describing on video the process of Planned Parenthood’s providing specific body parts to order, and StemExpress’s website interface through which purchasers of fetal body parts could place orders, including which parts and age of the fetus from which parts were obtained, with prices ranging up to $25,000 for fetal liver cells.

As the videos were released, the public and politicians raised an uproar to defund Planned Parenthood and investigate the practices portrayed. Newspapers such as the venerable New York Times were quick to dismiss the serious issues raised by the videos, instead attacking the messengers.

And so last week Daleiden and Merritt turned themselves in to authorities in Texas where they face felony charges of tampering with a governmental record (using false drivers licenses to hide their real identities) carrying up to 20 years in prison, and misdemeanor charges related to purchasing human organs. (Begging the question: If Daleiden and Merritt were purchasing, who was selling? Planned Parenthood claims it does not sell fetal body parts, it merely receives compensation for costs of “donating” them, to which mothers have consented.)

While human trafficking into the sex trade continues today, the practice is generally universally denounced, with multiple national and international agencies seeking to rescue its victims and bring sex slavery to an end. One hopes that the pioneering courage of “citizen journalists” Daleiden and Merritt will have a similar result for the horrific practices their videos expose—including the notion that a mother can “consent” to trade in her child, before or after its birth.

For the “rest of the story” of Stead and Eliza Armstrong: Stead went down on the Titanic, and George Bernard Shaw was inspired by the story of Eliza in writing his Pygmalion, later adapted as the musical comedy, My Fair Lady. You may recall Eliza’s drunken father selling her to Professor Higgins. Apparently a drunken father is funnier than a drunken mother.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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