"Pills made from dead babies" Chinese Medicine Urban Legend? ... really? Fetus? Carcass? Capsules? What's the truth?
First of all, a confession, I am Chinese American. As a result, I study a lot of issues from China. I am also an amateur skeptic. Thus, when "Skeptic's guide to the universe" podcast mentioned the story about how South Koreans alleged to have intercepted pills smuggled from China alleged to contain ingredients made from dead babies, I couldn't resist to check it. After all, it's sensational, it's believable (with the various scandals like the baby milk scandal and such), and it's fun to look at.
What I found shows that even news sources don't really check their news, and I'll show you exactly what i mean.
First Stop: Google News Search
Google News Search is a very useful tool in tracking the spread of news, as it actually indexes the dates of the news. So if you sort them by date, you can see how the news spread from one source to the other sources.
In this case, we will use the keywords: "south korea china ground up baby pill". I went to news.google.com, and put those in the searchbox, and I got this (your results may vary):
So I clicked on the list of that first arrow, that 264 news sources, then I clicked "all news", then "sort by date", and scrolled through 4 pages of news, I got this:
So the Huffington Post seems to have gotten it first, so what does the HuffPost article actually say? Well, they got it from Associated Press (AP).
The video report that accompanied the article actually cites some other source: RT News (Russian) and BBC (British), but they likely got it from AP also. We need to look elsewhere. What if we tried that SECOND link, the one with the 800+ news sources?
We perform the same steps... all news, sort by date, and we get...
The news is from Yonhap News Agency, or the South Korean Associated News. It is legitimate. The article is quite short, that customs official intercepted these pills they claim are made from dead fetuses or babies, they had been intercepting them since August 2011. They believe these pills can do harm as they are contaminated, and they will watch for more smuggling attempts. That's it.
The article was dated 2012/05/06 14:02 KST, or 2012-MAY-06 05:02 UTC. (California is UTC-7, so it's like 10PM day before, or May 5th)
(NOTE: Due to Google reporting the URL is now unsafe, the URL will not be linked, but is included before for reference only
Now let's check a couple versions on subsequent days, and see how the news differ, so we can track down the different variations. Call it... the genealogy of news.
The News Item Starts to Spread...
The news first showed up on MedicalXpress dated 06-MAY-2012 (no time given), but is credited to AFP, with no embellishments.
The first American newspaper to pick up the news is Palm Beach Post (Florida) sourced to a Korean reporter for Associated Press, with time stamp of 07-MAY-2012 0031 FDT. This AP version contained additional details beyond the original release from Yonhap, such as
The capsules were made in northeastern China from babies whose bodies were chopped into small pieces and dried on stoves before being turned into powder, the Korea Customs Service said.
Customs officials refused to say where the dead babies came from or who made the capsules, citing possible diplomatic friction with Beijing. Chinese officials ordered an investigation into the production of drugs made from dead fetuses or newborns last year.
There was additional details about inquiries made to China's health agency, local healthy agency, communist party headquarters, and so on, and they have not replied before the story went out. Otherwise, the article contains mostly the same details as the original Yonhap news.
Note the editing though, that China had investigated the production of these alleged pills last year. There is a story behind this that has not been revealed yet. This editing makes it sound as if China knew of the problem.
With the AP name behind it, the news starts to snowball, when it made it to Newser, a new curation service, and The Guardian, a UK newspaper, each decided to exercise some editing to leave the juicy bits and leave out the boring parts (such as China denies such pills exist, will check for it).
Then you get to the news sources that adds their own spin on the news, with no pretense to objectivity any more. For example:
INSANE: South Korean Authorities Have Seized Thousands Of China-Made Capsules Full Of Dead Babies -- Business Insider
When ideological organizations such as pro-life or Christian groups got hold of this news they will go hog wild with it... and they did. I am not linking to those. Let's just say they sensationalized it even more than the two items above. The Christian version manage to incorporate elements that went far beyond the original AP report, such as "99.7% human DNA", "contaminated with supergerms", and so on and so forth.
The original Yonhap report said nothing about details. Yet additional details appeared from the AP reporter in Korea, and the Christian news that are too precise to be pure fabrications. There is another source for all this information. Where is it?
Where is the ORIGINAL article?
If South Korean customs have first noticed the problem last year, there should be a report for it. Evidence suggest that the details emerged from somewhere, and the link came via a website called Geekosystem. Geekosystem, which archives some weird news, actually has TWO articles on this... One's a repeat of the AP article dated 08-MAY-2012, and a second article, dated August 5, 2011.
That appears to be a translation of the original Korean SBS TV's investigative report (last edited 06-AUG-2011), which can be found here, if you use Google Translate on the transcript (which is pretty lousy). A summary by Newdaily is available dated 04-AUG-2011.
It appears we have found the source. This report contains a lot of juicy tidbits that match up to the AP report AND the Christian version. According to the SBS news team, the bodies were sold (apparently willingly) by the parents to be processed into medicinal form. There is mention of an industrial drier / oven, a blue tray where the pills are packaged / encapsulated, and other lurid details. This is also where we found that 99.7% human DNA reference.
The entire video report is filled with blurry images, muffled voices (and voice changer) as well as a ton of voice-over by the narrator over frozen and blurred images. The final portion consist of a Korean doctor (?) explaining something.
I don't speak Korean, so if someone can provide a better translation of this entire 3 minute segment it would be very much appreciated. Link to video is above.
How true is the news item then?
With the above tracking done, there appears to be two possibilities;
1) the AP writer in Korea co-mingled his sources and mis-attributed the SBS Investigative report to the South Korean Customs spokesman.
2) Customs official, familiar with the SBS investigative report, cited it as "fact" without proper attribution, thus making it an official Customs "fact".
Either way, the two stories are co-mingled, and we can no longer tell which parts are absolutely true, and which parts are "probably true".
As for the TV report itself, blurry cam and editing makes it impossible to tell what were in the pills, while voice changer and voice-over made it impossible to hear the actual dialog. One of the blurry segment seem to show placenta, not entire dead babies or fetuses. On the other hand, there was a blurry shot of a red plastic basin with some black clumps inside of God-knows-what.
The entire "we found human DNA" thing could be explained by placenta and other byproducts of birth. It would be difficult to ascertain if actual carcasses were used instead of merely placenta. It could even be exaggeration of their "guide".
Placenta Consumption or Cannibalism?
Placenta consumption is a rare practice in modern times. Most of the animal kingdom practice placentophagy, which is the act of the mother eating the placenta after birth. Such practice by humans is limited to homeopathic birth coaches who believe it wards off post-partum depression. The placenta is gathered, dried, then encapsulated and consumed in capsule form.
Several celebrities seem to have picked up the cause. Tom Cruise joked about doing so before Katie Holmes gave birth to Siri. January Jones admitted doing so in January 2012. However, public reaction is universally negative. Tom Cruise was in one of his... weird periods back then and the interview cannot be taken seriously, and ABC News ran an article "Mad Mom?", a pun of January Jones' role on the TV series "Mad Men".
Human placenta is a VERY rare ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine (link is in Chinese), believed to nourish the blood. Official law in China declares placenta to be medical waste and CANNOT be sold without permission of the mother. That doesn't stop some unscrupulous folks from selling it as black market item. In many cultures, placenta are buried in a ceremony after birth to thank it for fulfilling its mission to bring the baby into this world. Thus, eating it would be sacrilegious, and may be considered a form of cannibalism.
Cannibalism is universally considered a taboo as it is counter to survival of the Homo Sapien specie.
Historical and Social Perspective
Historians pointed out that the propaganda portraying someone as heartless evildoers willing to mutilate the dead is nothing new. The infamous "German Tallow Factory" hoax of World War I was a prime example, when the British spread disinformation through their official newspapers about how the Huns (derogatory term for Germans) are making soap out of their own war dead, and attributing it to Belgian sources.
It is also the perfect urban legend... just nasty enough to be believed after the milk scandal, the soy sauce scandal, the cooking oil scandal, and others, and so outrageous that it is be sure to offend MOST people. It is also nearly impossible to prove (or disprove). The original South Korean source is of little help.
Such nasty urban legends are not new either. Reports of Westerners with a pet dog visiting Asian restaurant found their pet dog cooked and served to them is one persistent urban legend and has spawned many variants. It's basically xenophobia in the form of "can you believe that..."
So what can be conclude so far?
The facts are not all in. We don't really know what are in those pills. It could be placenta, it *could* be the nastier stuff.
However, the blurry cam footage of dark lumps in a red basin? Probably placenta, IMHO. It is of the right size and color.
The news sources cannot all be trusted. Some of them, whether consciously or unconsciously have contaminated news with opinion and omission.
Other groups are letting their own confirmation bias (human rights, anti-abortion, etc.) to drive their reactions to the news, and spreading them to their own constituents.
In the meanwhile, it was left to the skeptics to seek the truth, wherever it may be.