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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Squashing Religious Freedom With Bad Science



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New York Times lefty op/ed columnist, Timothy Egan, presents readers with a very misleading and scientifically erroneous offering today about religious freedom and the Obamacare birth control/abortifacient coverage mandate (in the midst of an article castigating the recently vetoed Arizona legislation, irrelevant here).

Egan’s column is in error about the science involved in the controversy, and implicitly misleading about the nature of the business entities involved in the litigation that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

First, Egan mocks the notion that Hobby Lobby’s owners believe that an IUD destroys a human life. From his column:

Consider the case now before the court, spearheaded by Hobby Lobby, a chain of more than 500 superstores in 47 states. It’s run by a billionaire, David Green, who is one of the nation’s most influential backers of evangelical causes. “We have tried to run our business in a way that would be pleasing to our savior,” said Green, in a 2012 speech outlining the biblical principles at the core of company.

As a corporation, Hobby Lobby asserts that life begins at conception. It opposes the health care law’s birth control mandate. A day-old zygote is a person. Preventing implantation of a fertilized egg with a standard intrauterine device, or I.U.D., is a form of abortion, in their argument.

You can see where this is going: religion that trumps medicine, or religion that trumps science, backed by the high court.

Egan is wrong on the science questions he mentions–and Hobby Lobby’s owners are correct:

  • As embryology textbooks would inform Egan, a new human life–that is, a human organism–indeed begins at the completion of fertilization. At that point, it has its own unique genetic makeup, its sex has been determined, etc. It isn’t chopped liver or a Martian. In other words, it is a nascent human life.
  • There is no such thing as a fertilized egg in this context. Once the zygote exists, the egg (and sperm)–the joining of which created the human organism–both cease to exist.
  • The IUD does destroy this nascent human life by preventing the embryo from implanting in the uterus.

Whether this is an abortion depends on the definition of “pregnant.” One view sees a woman as pregnant once the embryo comes into being in the Fallopian tube. Another holds that the pregnancy begins with successful implantation. The IUD prevents pregnancy under the latter definition, and destroys a pregnancy under the first.

But that isn’t the point. Hobby Lobby’s owners object to forced complicity in the destroying of a human life based on their religious belief that human being has value upon coming into existence, rather than, as others believe, at some later time.

Egan mocks this as Hobby Lobby believing that a nascent human ia a “person,” which he claims would “trump” science and medicine. But science can’t tell us whether an embryo is a person. That is a question of philosophy, morality, religion, etc. Science can only tell us that the embryo is a living human organism.

Similarly, medicine isn’t being trumped. Birth control is almost always an elective medical decision. Hobby Lobby’s owners aren’t trying to prevent employees from using the types of birth control that destroy (or may destroy) human life. They don’t want to pay for it because doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

And if the Supreme Court forces them to, don’t be surprised if they close their business and force a lot of people out of work.

A little comity could accommodate everyone, but the Obama Administration wants to force the country to accept its values in this issue. Indeed, the DOJ’s legal briefs all argue that the state has a “compelling interest” in forcing heterodox believers like Hobby Lobby to violate their religious beliefs to guarantee “equality for women” in the work force. 

But that isn’t science. That isn’t medical. That also isn’t the fundamental purpose of health insurance.

Finally, Egan says that if Hobby Lobby wins, “corporations” would be able to avoid laws based on religious beliefs. That’s too cute by half.

We’re not discussing publicly held corporations, such as, say, Google or GE. Those businesses have millions of shareholders and would never be able to demonstrate they have a corporate religious belief under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (as I have written elsewhere).

Rather, we are talking closely held businesses, such as Hobby Lobby. If the owners lose, the government will be forcing them to violate their religious beliefs in the way they operate their business. 

I believe that true civil libertarians stand up for individual freedom even when their own skin isn’t in the game. Under this definition, Timothy Egan is no civil libertarian. 



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