American College of Pediatricians Leak Exposes 10,000 Confidential Files

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A doctors’ organization at the center of the ongoing legal fight over the abortion drug mifepristone has suffered a significant data breach. A link to an unsecured Google Drive published on the group’s website pointed users last week to a large cache of sensitive documents, including financial and tax records, membership rolls, and email exchanges spanning over a decade. The more than 10,000 documents lay bare the outsize influence of a small conservative organization working to lend a veneer of medical science to evangelical beliefs on parenting, sex, procreation, and gender.

The American College of Pediatricians, which has fought to deprive gay couples of their parental rights and encouraged public schools to treat LGBTQ youth as if they were mentally ill, is one of a handful of conservative think tanks leading the charge against abortion in the United States. A federal lawsuit filed by the College and its partners against the US Food and Drug Administration seeks to limit nationwide access to what is today the most common form of abortion. The case is now on a trajectory for the US Supreme Court, which not even a year ago declared abortion the purview of America’s elected state representatives

The leaked records, first reported by WIRED, offer an unprecedented look at the groups and personnel central to that campaign. They also describe an organization that has benefited greatly by exaggerating its own power, even as it has struggled quietly for two decades to grow in size and gain respect. The records show how the College, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes as a hate group, managed to introduce fringe beliefs into the mainstream simply by being, as the founder of Fox News once put it, “the loudest voice in the room.” 

The Leak

A WIRED review of the exposed data found that the unsecured Google Drive stored nearly 10,000 files, some of which are compressed zip files containing additional documents. These records detail highly sensitive internal information about the College’s donors and taxes, social security numbers of board members, staff resignation letters, budgetary and fundraising concerns, and the usernames and passwords of more than 100 online accounts. The files include Powerpoint presentations, Quickbooks accounting documents, and at least 388 spreadsheets. 

One spreadsheet appears to be an export of an internal database containing information on 1,200 past and current members. It contains intimate personal information about each member, including various contact details, as well as where they were educated, how they heard of the group, and when membership dues were paid. The records show past and current members are mostly male and, on average, over 50 years old. As of spring 2022, the College counted slightly more than 700 members, according to another document reviewed by WIRED. 

The breach exposes some material dating back to the group’s origin. It includes mailing lists gathered by the group of thousands of “conservative physicians” across the country. (One document outlining recruitment efforts states in bold, red letters: “TARGET CHRISTIAN MDs.”) The ongoing recruitment of doctors and medical school students seen as holding Christian views has long been its top priority. The leaked records indicate that more than 10,000 mailers were sent to physicians between 2013 and 2017 alone. 

While the group’s membership rolls are not public, the leak has outed most if not all of its members. A cursory review of the member lists surfaced one name of note: a recent commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, who after joining in 2019 asked that his membership with the group remain a secret. (WIRED was unable to reach the official for comment in time for publication.)

The SPLC’s “hate group” designation, which the College forcefully disputes, haunted its fundraising efforts, records reveal. A barrage of emails in 2014 show that the label cost the group the chance to benefit from an Amazon program that would eventually distribute $450 million to charities across the globe. Amazon would deny the College’s application, stating that it relied on the SPLC to determine which charities fall into certain ineligible categories.

A strategy document would later refer to a “unified plan” among the College and its allies to “continue discrediting the SPLC,” which included a campaign aimed at lowering its rating at Charity Navigator, one of the web’s most influential nonprofit evaluators. One of the group’s admins noted that despite SPLC’s label, another charity monitor, GuideStar, listed the College as being in “good standing.”

The College’s GuideStar page no longer says this and appears to have been defaced. It now reads, “AMERICAN COLLEGE OF doodoo fartheads,” with a mission statement saying: “we are evil and hate gays :(((”

The Google Drive containing the documents was taken offline soon after WIRED contacted the American College of Pediatricians. The College did not respond to a request for comment.

The Talk

Leaked communications between members of the group and minutes taken at board meetings over the course of several years speak loudly about the challenges the group faced in pursuing its deeply unpopular agenda: returning America to a time when the laws and social mores around family squared neatly with evangelical Christian beliefs.

Many of the College’s most radical views target transgender people, and in particular, transgender youth. The leak, which had been indexed by Google, includes volumes of literature crafted specifically to influence relationships between practicing pediatricians, parents, and their children. It includes reams of marketing material the College aims to distribute widely among public school officials. This includes pushing schools to adopt junk science painting transgender youth as carriers of a pathological disorder, one that’s capable of spontaneously causing others–à la the dancing plague–to adopt similar thoughts and behaviors.

This is one of the group’s most dubious claims. While unsupported by medical science, it is routinely and incuriously propagated through literature targeted at schools and medical offices around the US. The primary source for this claim is a research paper drafted in 2017 by Lisa Littman, a Brown University scholar who, while a medical doctor, was not specialized in mental health. The goal of the paper was to introduce, conceptually, “rapid onset gender dysphoria”—a hypothetical disorder, as was later clarified by the journal that published it. Littman would also clarify personally that her research “does not validate the phenomenon” she’d hypothesized, since no clinicians, nor individuals identifying as trans, had participated in the study.  

The paper explains that its subjects were instead all parents who had been recruited from a handful of websites known for opposing gender-affirmative care and “telling parents not to believe their child is transgender.” A review of one of the sites from the period shows parents congregating to foster paranoia about whether there’s a “conspiracy of silence” around “anime culture” brainwashing boys into behaving like girls; insights plucked in some cases straight from another, more insidious forum (widely known for reveling in the suicides of the people it has bullied).

A 2021 prospectus describing the group’s focus, ideology, and lobbying efforts encapsulates a wide range of “educational resources” destined for the inboxes of physicians and medical school students. The materials include links to a website instructing doctors on how to speak to children in a variety of scenarios about a multitude of topics surrounding sex, including in the absence of their parents. Practice scripts of conversations between doctors and patients advise, among other things, ways to elicit a child’s thoughts on sex with the help of an imaginative metaphor. 

While the material is not expressly religious, it is clearly aimed at painting same-sex marriage as aberrant and immoral behavior. Physicians lobbied by the group are also told to urge patients to purchase Christian-based parenting guides, including one designed to help parents broach the topic of sex with their 11- and 12-year-old kids. The College suggests telling parents to plan a “special overnight trip,” a pretext for instilling in their children sexual norms in line with evangelical practice. The group suggests telling parents to buy a tool called a “getaway kit,” a series of workbooks that run around $54 online. The workbooks methodically walk the parents through the process of springing the topic, but only after a day-long charade of impromptu gift-giving and play. 

These books are full of games and puzzles for the parent and child to cooperatively take on. Throughout the process, the child slowly digests a concept of “sexual purity,” lessons aided by oversimplified scripture and well-trodden Bible school parables. 

Another document the group shared with its members contains a script for appointments with pregnant minors. Its purpose is made evidently clear: The advice is engineered specifically to reduce the odds of minors coming into contact with medical professionals not strictly opposed to abortion. A practice script recommends the doctor inform the minor that they “strongly recommend against” abortion, adding “the procedure not only kills the infant you carry, but is also a danger to you.” (Medically, the term “fetus” and “infant” are not interchangeable, the latter referring to a newborn baby less than one year old.)

The doctors are urged to recommend that the minor visit a website that, like others shared with patients, is not expressly religious but will only direct visitors to Catholic-run “crisis pregnancy centers,” which strictly reject abortion. The same site is widely promoted by anti-abortion groups such as National Right to Life, which last year held that it should be illegal to terminate the pregnancy of a 10-year-old rape victim.

The Professionals

The effort to ban mifepristone, which the Supreme Court paused last month pending further review, faces significant legal hurdles but could ultimately benefit from the appellate court’s disproportionately conservative makeup. Most of the legal power in the fight was supplied by a much older and better funded group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has established ties to some of the country’s most politically elite—former vice president Mike Pence and Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett among them.

A contract in the leaked documents dated April 2021 shows the ADF agreeing to legally represent the College free of charge. It stipulates that ADF’s ability to subsidize expenses incurred during lawsuits would be limited by ethical guidelines; however, it could still forgive any lingering costs simply by declaring the College “indigent.”

In contrast to the College’s some 700 members, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)–the organization from which the College’s founders split 20 years ago–has roughly 67,000. The rupture between the two groups was a direct result of a statement issued by the AAP in 2002. Modern research, the AAP said, had conclusively shown that the sexual orientation of parents had an imperceptible impact on the well-being of children, so long as they were raised in caring, supportive families.

The College would gain notoriety early on by assailing the positions of the AAP. In 2005, a Boston Globe reporter noted how common it had become for the American College of Pediatricians “to be quoted as a counterpoint” to anything the AAP said. The institution had a rather “august-sounding name,” he wrote, for being run by a “single employee.” 

Internal documents show that the group’s directors quickly encountered hurdles operating on the fringe of accepted science. Some claimed to be oppressed. Most of the College’s research had been “written by one person,” according to minutes from a 2006 meeting, which were included in the leak. The College was failing to make a splash. In the future, one director suggested, papers rejected by medical journals “should be published on the web.” The vote to do so was unanimous (though the board decided the term “not published” was nicer than “rejected”). 

A second director put forth a motion to create a separate “scientific section” on the group’s website, strictly for linking to articles published in medical journals. The motion was quashed after it dawned on the board that they didn’t “have enough articles” to make the page “look professional.” 

The College struggled to identify the root cause of its runtedness. “To get enough clout,” one director said, “it would take substantial numbers, maybe 10,000.” (The College’s recruitment efforts would yield fewer than 7 percent of this goal in the following 17 years.) Yet another said the marketing department advised that “the College needs to pick a fight with the AAP and get on Larry King Live.” Another board member, the notes say, felt the organization was too busy trying to “walk the fence” by neglecting to acknowledge that “we are conservative and religious.”