Zika could have been an ordinary epidemic, like the ever-changing influenza that emerges each winter and spreads across the Northern Hemisphere with sad but rare complications. But the Religious Right’s antagonism to birth control and abortion—and honest conversation about sex in general—has transformed the Zika epidemic into a nightmare that will devastate lives for an entire generation.
In the absence of pregnancy, Zika usually isn’t a big deal. Only one in five people who contract Zika experience symptoms, and those who do mostly feel like they’ve gotten the flu. This is not to say Zika never does lasting harm to adults, just that, like the flu, those cases appear to be rare.
The difference, as most people now know, is that getting Zika while pregnant is really, really bad. The virus attacks the fetal nervous system, eating brain structures that have already developed and blocking development of others. Even babies who look normal may be damaged for life.
Unlike the flu, when it comes to Zika, pregnancy prevention or timing is everything.
Three Ways to Safeguard Families
Even if Zika spreads across its potential range of 41 states, a quick and targeted response could make lasting harm rare, at least within U.S. borders. The solution is simple and relatively cheap, but it consists of policies that the sex-obsessed, patriarchy-protecting Religious Right has been opposing for decades:
Information. Launch a huge public education campaign so all couples know how to prevent mistimed or unwanted pregnancy and can delay parenthood till the time is safe. Currently a third of pregnancies globally and almost half in the U.S. are accidents, with some of the highest rates where Zika-carrying mosquitos live.
Contraception. Make state-of-the-art birth control available to all free of charge, including the very best IUDs and implants, which drop the accidental pregnancy rate below 1 in 500. (With the Pill that’s 1 in 11; with condoms 1 in 6; with the rhythm method it’s closer to 1 in 4.)
Abortion. Ensure that couples who discover microcephaly and other fetal defects in utero can, if they prefer, abort a diseased pregnancy and start over. Millions of healthy children exist in this world only because their parents receive the mercy of a fresh start (like I did).Each of these steps is easier and cheaper than trying to eradicate mosquitos, prevent people from getting bitten, or develop and distribute a vaccine. With existing contraceptive knowledge and technologies, birth defects from Zika could drop to near zero. The problem is not a lack of means; it’s a lack of will brought on by religious teachings that generate resistance and controversy around anything that has to do with sex, gender roles or reproduction.You Reap What You Sow
No matter what, tragic birth defects from Zika would have hit some families as the virus spreads out of Africa where it is endemic (and where most women appear to have immunity before they reach reproductive age). But without relentless promotion of ignorance and falsehood by priests and pastors—without anti-contraception campaigning by the Vatican in particular—birth defects from Zika would be a small fraction of what humanity now faces.
Religious conservatives claim to love women and babies, especially unborn babies, but this claim is pure self-deception by biblical standards. The writer of Matthew warns of men who claim to speak for God but actually don’t. He says,
“By their fruit ye shall know them.”
What are the fruits of conservative Christian hostility toward judicious, planned, intentional parenthood? For generations, humanity has been battered by preventable harms from ill-timed and unwanted pregnancy: children bearing children in hopeless poverty, education foregone, abuse and neglect, family conflict triggered by stress, armed conflict triggered by population pressures and resource depletion; and starvation, illness and death.
If the church hadn’t thrown its wealth and weight against family planning programs in the 1960s and every decade since, who knows how different life on Earth might be right now. Zika merely ups the ante.
And the conservative Christian solution to it all? More prayer and less sex. If God’s self-proclaimed messengersactually loved women and children more than they love power and tradition, they would admit they have been wrong and would do what’s best for healthy families:
Stop using the political clout of the church to make birth control expensive and hard to get, especially for poor people and those at risk of Zika.
Stop goading conservative politicians to waste millions on bogus, indefensible anti-abortion laws, and work instead to make abortion less necessary.
Stop teaching young people that they should “let go and let God” determine how many kids they have (whether infected or starving or not). Start teaching that the ability to plan our families is a precious gift.
Stop pretending that vows of abstinence work for more than a few odd individuals. Start providing real information about healthy, respectful, responsible pleasure and intimacy.
Stop forcing doctors and nurses to follow anti-contraception, anti-abortion religious directives bordering on malpractice; and instead ensure that hospitals and clinics controlled by religious institutions provide model family planning care.The Zika wave will sweep over the Americas, and as immunity grows rates of infection will likely drop off. In that case, the suffering caused by church hostility to sexuality education and family planning will drop back to more familiar levels. But right now Zika presents a rare opportunity for religious leaders to show that they are not, as they often appear, so busy defending dogma that they have become morally bankrupt.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.
Sexual intimacy and pleasure are some of humanity’s most cherished experiences. The so-called “best things in life” include natural beauty, fine dining, the arts, thrilling adventures, creative pursuits and community service. But love and orgasms are among the few peak experiences that are equally available to rich and poor, equally sweet to those whose lives are going according to plan and to many whose dreams are in pieces. (N.B.: in 20th century America African Americans utilized human sexuality to compensate for what was denied them elsewhere.)
Religious conservativesthink that these treasured dimensions of the human experience should be available to only a privileged few people whose lives fit their model: male-dominated, monogamous, heterosexual pairs who have pledged love and contractual marriage for life. Some true believers—especially those in thrall to the Protestant Quiverfull Movement or the Vatican—would further limit sexual privileges even within hetero state-licensed, church-sanctified marriages to only couples who are open to intimacy producing a pregnancy and a child. Take your pick: it’s either reproductive roulette or no sex—although you might be able to game God by tracking female fertility and then bumping like bunnies during the low risk times of the month.
Why Christianity is Obsessed with Sex
To be clear, I’m not saying that Christianity’s sex rules are only a function of patriarchal Christian privilege. During the Iron Age, from whence Christianity’s sex rules got handed down, society wasorganized around kin groups, and the endlessly-warmongering clans of the Ancient Near East were more at risk of extinction than overpopulation. Legally-enforced monogamy created lines of inheritance and social obligation, clarifying how neighbors should be treated and who could be enslaved.
Also, hetero sex necessarily carried the risk of pregnancy, which made it adaptive to welcome resultant pregnancies. Children do best in stable, nurturing families and communities, and in the Ancient Near East, “No marriage? No sex!” may have served to protect the well-being of mothers and children as well as the social power of patriarchal men. But in today’s mobile, pluralistic societies with modern contraceptive options and social safety nets, God’s self-appointed sex police have little credible excuse save their own compelling need to bully and boss and stay on top.
It should come as no surprise that Church authorities want an exclusive license to grant “legitimate” sexual privileges. Over the centuries, religious authorities have sought to own and define virtually all of the experiences that touch us deeply: the birth of a new person (christening, bris), art (iconography), music (chanting and hymns), eating, morality, mind altering substances, community, coming of age, family formation, and even our dying process. In each case religious authorities seek to legitimizesome forms of the experience and denigrate those that don’t fit their model. Powerful people and institutions want to control valued assets so they can leverage those assets to get more power. And controlling sex is powerful!
The Egotism and Cruelty of God’s Self-Appointed Messengers
Religious authorities like Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Evangelist Franklin Graham or Religious Right icon Pat Robertson quote the Bible and talk as if their self-righteous sex rules came straight from God, which of course is hooey. Set aside for the moment the fact that declaring oneself a spokesman for God is stupefyingly egotistical.Anyone who claims to know the mind of God is simultaneously making a rather bold claim about the superior infallibility of his own mind. The same can be said for anyone who boldly declares that the Bible is literally perfect and that he knows what God was trying to say.
But beyond egotism, telling people they can’t have sex based on Iron Age rules collected in the Bible or medieval rules pontificated by some kiss-my-ring Pope is just plain mean. It’s cruel and selfish and heartless, because the sex rules that served Hebrew patriarchs 2500 years ago and that helped the Vatican breed more tithing members 500 years ago deny sex to a whole lot of people who would otherwise find sexual pleasure and intimacy precious.
No Sex for the Weary
Who would men like Dolan, Graham and Robertson (or their predecessors like the Apostle Paul, Augustine, or Martin Luther) exclude from the privilege of sexual intimacy? Most of humanity—including, probably, you and a lot of people you love. The list is limitless:
College students who face long years of study before being ready for partnership and parenthood.
Parents who want to commit their finite emotional resources to the children they already have.
Young singles whose bodies are at peak libido, but who aren’t ready to form families.
Those who, whether married or not, want to commit their lives to some form of calling that isn’t parenthood.
People who perceive balance within the web of life as moral or spiritual imperative, whose conscience guides them to limit childbearing for the sake of other species and future generations.
Poor people who want to get a step ahead instead of (or before) having a child.
People who are saving up for marriage.
Cohabiting couples who don’t buy into the traditional marriage contract.
Empty nesters who are rediscovering why they like each other.
Travelers whose mobile lifestyle makes it impossible to offer a child a stable nurturing community and whose opportunities for intimacy flit past.
Loners and eccentrics whose personal qualities or desire for solitude make partnership and/or parenthood a poor fit.
Elderly widows and widowers for whom remarriage doesn’t make sense.
Famine-plagued women whose hungry bodies can ill sustain the risks of pregnancy or demands of incubating a healthy child.
The ill or those at risk of illness, who must navigate love in the time of chemo or love in the time of Zika.
War zone civilians and refugees who may not know whether they’ll survive or how, but know there is comfort in each other’s arms.
I could go on but I suspect there’s no need.Under what set of delusions is the world a betterplacebecause people like these are denied the pleasures of intimate touch, or the respite of a sexual interlude, or the acute pleasure of orgasm?
What The Sex Police Really Want
Wait a minute, a reader might say. Don’t overgeneralize. A minority of lay Christians believe that married couples must give up sex if they don’t want a(nother) baby —even if that is the official word from the pulpit for Catholics and some Protestants. So, this fight is really about people who want sex without marriage.
True. Well, partly true.
It goes without saying that conservative Christians want above all to deny sexual intimacy and pleasure to people who are single—especially girls and women. That is because the Bible’s Iron Age Sex Rules were meant, first and foremost, to ensure that females, who were economic assets belonging to men, produced purebred offspring of known paternity, who were also economic assets belonging to men. The Bible sanctions many forms of marriage and sexual slavery but all converge on one point: they guarantee that a man can know which offspring are his. That is why, after the slaughter of the Midianites in the book of Numbers, only virgins can be kept as war booty. It is why, in the Torah’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods.
The Old Testament prescribes death for dozens of infractions (you yourself probably belong on death row). But when it comes to sex, the death penalty is for females who voluntarily give it up (or who don’t scream loud enough when they are being raped). The meanest, sickest part of this archaic and morally warping worldview is the idea that, for women, sex itself should be a death penalty—or at least a roll of the dice. It’s simply divine justice that sex should sooner or later lead to the pain and potential mortality of childbirth, because that’s the punishment God pronounced on uppity Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” Genesis 3:16 NRSV.
There you have it. Female sexual pleasure and intimacy without the risk of labor pain and death is cheating God—as well as the male who rules over her.
Control at Any Price
The ways in which God’s Self-Appointed Sex Policetry to obstruct intimacy and orgasms are legion. Denying young people information about their bodies, promoting sex negativity, fostering a cult of virginity, spreading lies about masturbation—and above all shaming, shaming, shaming anyone who might dare to have sex without their approval. But the surest way the sex police can stop single females from cheating their way out of Eve’s curse is by making sex risky, which is why the religious right is obsessed with denying women access to birth control and abortion.
Globally, today 215 million desperate women want modern contraception and are unable to get it, thanks in part to American Religious Right politicians who explicitly excluded fertility management services from international HIV prevention. Church induced hang-ups about sex mean that reproductive empowerment gets left out of conversations where it is fundamental to wellbeing: family prosperity, early childhood development, mental health—even education of girls and career advancement of women.
At home, the U.S. squandered almost two decades and 1.5 billion dollars on abstinence-only “sex ed” that was an abject failure.Over the last three quarters of a century, conservative Christian obstruction of sexual literacy and family planning programs has driven humanity to the verge of collapse and has devastated families, condemning desperately poor people—like those who trusted Mother Teresa (who in turn trusted the Pope)—to lives of even deeper desperation.
Righteous men with access to the halls of power thwart sexual agency and then make criminals of women who abort the resulting ill-conceived pregnancies—all for the sake of maintaining their own authority and that of their institutions. And if the campaign to stop single women from having sex makes things hard for some married folks—the refugee couple, for example; or the poor parents trying to take care of the kids they already have; or those facing the prospect of a Zika baby with calcified and deformed brain structures—so be it.
The Small and Large of It
Think of the suffering as collateral damage— a form of collateral damage that is relatively benign by the standards of ecclesiastical history.
During the peak of Christianity’s political power, the Dark Ages, the Vatican launched a crusade against a sect of French Christians, the Cathars, who the Pope had declared heretics. When the crusaders arrived and began their slaughter, local people fled into churches, and sorting out who counted as a real Christian got confusing. So an inquiry was sent to the abbot, asking who should be killed and who spared. He replied by messenger: “Kill them all, God will know his own.”
By contrast with medieval butchery, collateral damage in the form of intimacy denied, or lives burdened with shame and stigma, or unwanted children born into the world with the odds stacked against them, seems minor.
But that is the only standard by which denying people sexual intimacy and pleasure is trivial. As I said, these are among humanity’s most treasured experiences. There are few freedoms that we value more than being able to form the love bonds and families of our choosing. In Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—and even among immigrant Muslims in the West—young people risk and lose their lives for love.
Going for Broke
Religious authorities fight to maintain monopoly control over sexual privileges precisely because these privileges are so valuable—so to the heart of who we are as human beings. Sexual pleasure sweeps over us; it can bring us to our knees. Sexual intimacy allows us to transcend the boundaries of time and space, body and psyche—to lose the self in the other.
If these seem like religious terms, they are. It is no accident that vocalizations during carnal ecstasy sounds a lot like prayer or that erotic music often has religious overtones:Take me to church; I’ll worship like a dog. . . . In your temple of love . . . halleluja (Hozier; Rod Stewart; Leonard Cohen). Or vice versa: You hold my hand and hold my heart; I give it away now, I am on my knees offering all I am (Parachute Band).
The Church hierarchy’s determination to define and control “legitimate” sex may be cruel and transparently self-serving. But it is smart. Sex endlessly attracts and compels us, making sexual guilt the perfect currency for institutions trafficking in sin and salvation. When religious authorities hold exclusive power to forgive sexual transgressions and then dole out (or deny) sexual privileges, they can redirect sublimated love and loyaltyand yearning and passion into the kind of peak experiences that religion itself has on offer—experiences like spiritual ecstasy, selfless service, or mystical union with the Divine—all scripted and doled out by the very same religious institutions and authorities, of course.
But God’s self-appointed spokesmen are losing their grip.If their proclamations seem crazier and their political maneuvers seem transparently cruel—as in recent bullying of transgender kids—that is because they are desperate.People are noticing that the cage door is open and that the world outside offers a rainbow of possibilities.
Sex and love that are not controlled by the Church compete with the Church. If individuals who are young and elderly, stable and transitioning, queer and straight, partnered and single, parenting and childfree, claim the right to pleasure themselves and each other and to form intimate bonds based on no authority save their own mutual consent and delight, the Church is screwed.
A new Pew Research Center analysis of General Social Survey data confirms a long-simmering trend in U.S. religious observance: While attendance at religious services has declined for all Americans, it has declined more among women than men.
In the early 1970s, 36 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported attending church services weekly, a ten-point gap that reflected the long-standing trend of women being more religiously committed than men.
The gap reached its widest point in 1982, when it hit 13 percent, but then it began to shrink. By 2012, 22 percent of men reported attending church weekly, as did 28 percent of women, reflecting a “worship gap” of only six percent, an historic low.
Pew’s David McClendon gives several possible reasons for women’s declining levels of religiosity as measured by church attendance. One is the increase in the number of women in the workforce, which could theoretically decrease their leisure time and force them to cut back on activities like church. But as McClendon himself notes, “the fastest increase in women’s full-time employment” actually “occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which time the gender gap on religious service attendance actually widened somewhat.”
If women aren’t too busy with work to go to church, maybe it’s because they’re becoming too well educated. Higher rates of educational attainment are correlated to less church going, except McClendon notes that both more educated and less educated women are going to church less.
Finally, McClendon notes that the growth of the “nones” appears to having contributed to women’s declining church attendance, as “the rate of growth in the unaffiliated has been slightly more rapid for women than men,” which has “helped narrow the gender gap in weekly attendance.”
But it seems likely that more women becoming unaffiliated is part and parcel of the same trend of more women staying away from church. It still doesn’t explain why this is happening.
What McClendon overlooks is that the years that women’s church attendance began to decline are the very years when religious leaders in the Catholic Church and the evangelical movement fused religion with the culture wars, with overall attendance for women taking it’s first steep drop in the 1980s.
This drop in church attendance for women coincided with the period when the Catholic bishops began making abortion a litmus test for Catholic politicians, as in the 1984 election when Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was attacked for being pro-choice.
And Pew’s own numbers appear to back this up. According to Pew, women are slightly more likely than men to say that churches should keep out of politics (55 percent vs. 53 percent), and overall 60 percent of Catholics say church should keep out of politics.
Women’s church attendance did recover somewhat in the early 1990s, but then began a long slide in the mid-1990s that continued to 2012, when the GSS data end. While the GSS numbers don’t break out attendance by religion, church attendance for both men and women appears to have bottomed out around the time the sex scandals broke in the Catholic Church in 2001. Other studies have a found “a significant decline in religious participation as a result of the scandals,” and it’s possible this decline was large enough to affect overall church attendance.
But while both men’s and woman’s attendance recovered somewhat after the early 2000s, women’s attendance dropped noticeably between about 2004 and 2012, while men’s remained fairly stable. This period saw evangelicals taking an increasingly hard line about traditional “Catholic” issues like birth control, which may have alienated some women.
And in 2004, the Catholic Church released a controversial document by soon-to-be Pope Benedict that was critical of feminism and said women’s characteristics were “Listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” The following years of Benedict’s papacy were particularly unwelcoming to progressive women in the church.
If McClendon is right and the trend of growing disaffiliation correlates to women’s decline in attendance, it’s also worth noting that Catholics make up the largest portion of the nones exiting a religion. Almost one-third (28 percent) of nones are former Catholics, which is the single largest share of any religious group.
Why have women stopped going to church? It isn’t because they’re too busy or too well educated. Maybe they stopped going when conservative politics took over the pulpit.
Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church.
The American Life League mobilizes devout Catholics against medical options that, to their way of thinking, violate God’s will. If you should drive past a Planned Parenthood and see elderly women fingering rosary beads next to pictures of the Virgin Mary, or young men holding Bibles and praying, American Life League probably had a hand in their presence there. Ironically, ALL also spreads misinformation about birth control, for example via a Pill Kills campaign — which means they feed the line-up of Catholic women waiting for abortion services.
ALL promotes a passive, “let go and let God” approach to the dying process as well as family planning, so with death with dignity approved this fall in California, the group is fighting back—by touting the benefits of suffering. “Suffering is a grace-filled opportunity to participate in the passion of Jesus Christ. Euthanasia selfishly steals that opportunity.” So proclaims an ALL meme making its way across the internet.
Mother Teresa – “The Kiss of Jesus”
This is not a fringe position in the Catholic Church, which has long extolled the spiritual virtues of suffering. Mother Teresa’s attraction to pain shaped her ministry to the dying, and one of the most serious criticisms of her Calcutta homes was that patients were denied modern medical care to relieve pain even when the Missionaries of Charity had the funding to do so. By her own report, Mother Teresa once told a woman to imagine that her suffering was kisses from Jesus. “Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you.”
“Tell Jesus to stop,” the woman responded.
The message the saint failed to absorb from her own story was this: Many people—Catholic or not, ill or not—reject the idea that suffering is a virtue. Whether we’re talking about nuns who would rather not self-flagellate, dying elders who would rather receive relief or even hasten the end, or desperate parents who would rather prevent the next childbirth—many people would rather not “let go and let God” manage their suffering or that of a loved one in their care. Many of us believe that causing unnecessary suffering or failing to mitigate suffering when we can is evil. Based on our moral and spiritual values, denying relief is not just wrong—it is horrific.
Catholic Hospitals Subject to Pro-Suffering Directives
One place this clash of values is playing out is in hospitals and outpatient clinics across the U.S. that have been absorbed by Catholic healthcare corporations. The mergers leave no non-Catholic care option in many communities—as, for example, in seven Washington counties where all hospitals are now Catholic owned or managed. By design, merger contracts between secular and Catholic health care systems often require that once secular institutions become subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the Catholic bishops. Like ALL’s meme and Mother Teresa’s homes, these religious directives promote suffering over patient choice in dying:
Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in [death with dignity] in any way. . . . Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.
Although hospital systems vary in terms of how forcefully they apply the Directives, in theory strict adherence is non-negotiable; and the aim of the bishops is to move Catholic-owned institutions toward more rigorous enforcement:
Catholic health care services must adopt these directives as policy, require adherence to them within the institution as a condition of medical privileges and employment, and provide appropriate instruction regarding the Directives for administration, medical and nursing staff, and other personnel.
Watchdog groups like CatholicWatch.org and MergerWatch.org warn that—thanks to increasingly bold religious freedom claims by Catholic institutions—unsuspecting Americans may find themselves, like Mother Teresa’s patient, experiencing the kiss of Jesus as they wait for the end.
Suffering with Jesus
The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned . . .” (Romans 5:12) This kind of thinking is used to explain why Jesus had to die, and why his blood cleanses all of our sins, preparing us for heaven.
But, as any moviegoer can tell you, a swift and painless death rarely makes a very satisfying story. In particular, a swift and painless death of Jesus might not seem sufficient to make up for all of the evil in the world since, according to the story, he remains dead for only three days. Consequently, Christians—and Catholics in particular—have long played up the protracted torture in the crucifixion story.
In the Middle Ages, painters and sculptors competed to create the most graphic, visceral depictions of blood and anguish in the crucifixion story. Even today, the interior of many Catholic churches is ringed by a series of images called “The Stations of the Cross,” which depict the stages of torment leading up to the death scene. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” turned this sequence into feature-length torture porn, and churches bussed children and elders to witness the spectacle. Gibson sought to convey the exquisite skill with which our Iron Age ancestors inflicted protracted pain, a skill our species mastered early. This is the “passion” story in which the American Life League invites us all to participate, holding it up as a preferable alternative to choice in dying. Only their invitation isn’t really an invitation, because what they actually want is to prevent any of us from choosing otherwise.
Eve Cursed to Suffer
Catholic opposition to family planning including abortion has many roots, but one of those roots is theological glorification of pain and even death during childbirth. According to the Genesis story, Eve brought sin into the world, and the trauma of labor is her divinely appointed punishment:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
Centuries later, the New Testament writer of 1 Timothy reminded his audience that “women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15).
In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell. –Tertullian, Father of Latin Christianity
I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. –Saint Augustine.
In this view—at its most extreme—if a woman should suffer or die in childbirth, that is simply the right and proper order of things. “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, that is of no consequence; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.” – Martin Luther [Erl. ed., 16 2 , p. 538].
Given the words of the Bible writers, and given the words of Christianity’s patriarchs, one can understand the muddled mentality that allows right-wing Christians to feel virtuous while promoting policies that force people to suffer against their will. If only pain has the power to cleanse sin, and only God gets to decide when enough is enough, then offering people choices about the beginnings or end of life denies the devil his due.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
Imagine that someone hated you (or your company) and wanted to make you look bad. So, he pretended to be a friend or colleague, went to your events, repeatedly asked you to meetings or lunch, gained your trust, and then spent two years recording private conversations. Could he find stuff that would make you sound like a heartless monster? If you’re like me, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, there’s no way it would take years.
Like me, you probably can think of five things you said in the last week that you would cringe to hear on the evening news. But would a selectively edited patchwork of your worst (or most easily misinterpreted) moments accurately reflect who you are? Almost certainly not.
The scraps of conversation with Planned Parenthood employees that were recorded and released by fundamentalist Christian David Daleiden and his front organization, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), sounded shockingly nasty. But as details of the smear campaign emerge, we probably should be surprised that they didn’t sound worse.
Here are nine facts that put what you heard in context:
42 Splices – According to forensic analysis by Fusion GPS, the first five videos released by Daleiden and CMP, contained 42 splices where sentences were cut and patched to create theappearance of a seamless conversation. By design, these edits changed the meaning of individual sentences as well as the overall conversation. In one example, a Planned Parenthood staffer’s comment about lab protocols was edited to sound like she was talking about abortion procedures. Her words got echoed repeatedly by mainstream media who falsely assumed they knew what she was talking about.
Contradictory Evidence Omitted – In a Colorado interview, a Planned Parenthood employee said 13 times that all fetal tissue donations must be reviewed by attorneys and follow all laws. All 13 times were omitted.
Edits in “Unedited Videos” – The “unedited” videos released along with shorter excerpts were themselves edited, rendering them useless as evidence in legal cases or regulatory hearings.
Thousands of Hours of Recordings – To shock audiences and create the appearance of callous wrongdoing, abortion foes selectively released less than one percent of their recordings,compiling even smaller fragments to create viral videos. By Daleiden’s own report, CMP agents recorded “thousands of hours,” from which they selected the ten or twenty hours of (moderately edited) recordings to obtain a few minutesof (heavily spliced) inflammatory sentences.
Expensive Taxpayer-funded Investigations Find No Wrongdoing – A growing list of government committees in states including Massachusetts, Indiana, South Dakota, Georgia and Pennsylvania have now cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, and in California and Texas lawmakers have also called for investigation of fraud by the Center for Medical Progress.
Yuck Factor – Rather than seeking to expose wrongdoing, the campaign appears optimized to trigger a frenzy of disgust among religious conservatives,activating them for the upcoming campaign cycle. Research suggests that, in contrast to liberals (who base moral judgments primarily on questions of fairness and harm), many conservatives fail to differentiate between physical disgust and morality.Conservative campaigns leverage this fact. Homophobes wielded the “yuck factor” effectively for decades to block gay rights and are deploying the same strategy against reproductive rights. Repeated reference to fetal remains functions as a powerful arousal trigger for the Religious Right.
Gallows Humor – Because black humor is a way people deal with stress, CMP was virtually guaranteed to catch shocking “callous, inappropriate” comments if they recorded long enough. Gruesome humor is particularly common among soldiers, doctors, EMT’s, medical researchers, farmworkers, nurses and others who work around bodily fluids and death. One friend commented that her nurse colleagues will joke rudely about their patients at one moment and then will be crying for the same patients an hour later.
Letting Down – From a psychological standpoint, things we say and do in private (or among trusted, like-minded friends) are particularly vulnerable to being distorted by people with ill intent. That is because we rely on the other person to interpret any given statement within their experience of us. For example, after my bike is stolen, I can safely rant among friends about capital punishment for bike thieves only because my friends and family already carry the rest of the context: they know I oppose capital punishment. A Planned Parenthood employee joking about wanting a Lamborghini relies on the same unspoken understanding.
Don’t be deceived: The religious conservatives behind the Planned Parenthood smear campaign have shown repeatedly that they are willing to harm women and families and even drive up abortions in order to control the sexuality of females and youth.This isn’t about their hatred of Planned Parenthood, the healthcare nonprofit, it is about their hatred of planned parenthood, with two small “p’s.” It’s about their hatred of the changes in societythat allow young people to create the lives and families of their choosing, free from the biological constraints that for most of human history have made pregnancy the price of sex.
Speaking of young people, online youth collective, Ultraviolet, has done a little selective splicing of their own. They just released a video in which Sean Hannity interviews Deleiden about Mike Huckabee’s sale of fetal squish. It is not to be missed.
(N.B.: it might be noted that the ‘pro-life’ stance does not have, and never has had, anything to do with life: it is all about SEX.)
In one simple quote, Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. sums up the hypocrisy in the ‘pro-life’ movement:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
This quote applies well to many Republican lawmakers and anti-choice extremistswho continue to introduce/pass misogynist lawsrestricting a woman’s reproductive rights, as they work to shut down women’s health clinicslike Planned Parenthood. You don’t hear of these same extremists adopting children from unplanned pregnancies. But you do hear of these extremists cutting simple programs like schools lunches for children, cutting aid to families who are homeless/in need, and blocking free college tuition. No, the goals of these hypocrites seem to be to control women, their bodies, their families, and their futures.It’s good to hear a Catholic nun define the GOP double talk so well.
An outspoken advocatefor women, Sister Joan Chittister is an author of 50 books and a lecturer. Holding a Ph.D. from Penn State University, she is also a research associate in a division of Cambridge University. Other subjects of her writing includes women in the church and society, human rights, peace and justice, religious life and spirituality. She has appeared in the media on numerous shows including Meet the Press, 60 Minutes, Bill Moyers, BBC, NPR, and Oprah Winfrey. You can visit Joan Chittister’s website at Joan Chittister.org.
Excerpts of this story were taken from an earlier Daily Kos diary: ‘Anti-Choice Extremists Shut Down Planned Parenthood Website’
Religion and science are at best strange bedfellows, as the Catholic Church has found since the time of its unfortunate experience with Galileo. So it is significant that Pope Francis, who has shown great appetite for departing from some of the harsh rhetoric and methods of his predecessors, is issuing an encyclical on the environment at a time when the world’s leaders are once again considering a global approach to dealing with climate change.
Whenever religious figures enter into a debate on policy issues that have a strong scientific basis there is a slippery interplay between the desire to do good by addressing real problems, and the constraints that ideology and dogma impose upon the ability to do so objectively. Pope Francis’s encyclical follows this pattern.
Laden with detail, it is perhaps the most scientific document to come out of the Vatican since John Paul II discussed evolution in 1996. As a result, many in the environmental community have praised the encyclical, which affirms that human activity causes climate change and delineates many of the impacts, especially the disproportionate impact it is likely to have on the world’s poor. While calling on people of all religions to take action, however, the pope rejects, on a purely theological basis, some of the most propitious solutions on the table.
The evidence-based discussion of climate change in the encyclical resulted in part from prolonged interaction with the scientific community. The language in many places reads like a treatise from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Consider, for example, this excerpt:
There is a very consistent scientific consensus indicating that we are in the presence of a disturbing heating of the climate system. In recent decades, this warming was accompanied by the constant rising of the sea level, and it is also hard not to relate it with the rise in extreme weather events… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanism, the changes in the orbit and the axis of the Earth, the solar cycle), but numerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming in recent decades it is due to the large concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) mainly emitted due to human activity. Their concentration in the atmosphere prevents the heat of the solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space. This is especially enhanced by the model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the center of the global energy system. It is also affected by the increase of the practice of changing land use, mainly by deforestation for agricultural purposes.
The synopsis of the impacts of climate change is equally empirical:
… the heating has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious cycle which aggravates the situation even more and which will affect the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in the hottest areas, and will result in the extinction of a part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting of polar and high altitude ice threaten the leakage of methane gas which carries high risks, and the decomposition of frozen organic matter could further accentuate the emission of carbon dioxide. In turn, the loss of tropical forests makes things worse, since these help to mitigate the climate change. The pollution produced by carbon dioxide increases the acidity of the oceans and affects the marine food chain.
Perhaps of most importance to the Pope himself, who has always expressed solidarity with the poor, the document makes it clear that the impacts of climate change are disproportionate, with the poorest countries likely to bear the largest burden. It castigates climate-change deniers in wealthy nations who “seem to focus especially on masking the problems or hiding the symptoms”.
These are timely and welcome remarks by someone who is viewed as a spiritual guide by billions of Catholics. An encyclical wouldn’t be an encyclical without theology however, and that is where problems arise. In a chapter entitled “Gospel of Creation” Francis ruminates poetically on the nature of man, the mystery of the cosmos (my own area of study) and the special duty Christians have to respect nature, humanity and the environment. It’s beautifully presented and sounds good in principle. However, his biblical analysis leads to the false conclusion that contraception and population control are not appropriate strategies to help a planet with limited resources.
Here, ideology subsumes empiricism, and the inevitable conflict between science and religion comes to the fore. One can argue until one is blue in the face that God has a preordained plan for every zygote, but the simple fact is that if one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale population is a problem. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level in which all humans have adequate food, water, medicine and security. Moreover, as this pope should particularly appreciate, the environmental problems that overpopulation creates also disproportionately afflict those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. Ultimately, the surest road out of poverty is to empower women to control their own fertility. Doing so allows them to better provide for themselves and their children, improves access to education and healthcare and, eventually, creates incentives for environmental sustainability.The problem with basing a public policy framework on outmoded ideas that predate modern science and medicine is that one inevitably proposes bad policies.
No one can fault Pope Francis’s intentions, which are clearly praiseworthy, but his call for action on climate change is compromised by his adherence to doctrines that are based on revelation and not evidence. The Catholic Church and its leaders can never be truly objective and useful arbiters of human behavior until they are willing to dispense with doctrine that can thwart real progress. In this sense, the latest encyclical took several steps forward, and then a leap back.
Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about Ireland’s vote on same-sex marriage, the GOP primary circus, and why, exactly, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley is running for president.
reland’s vote to approve same-sex marriage redefines that country’s relationship to another historically powerful institution: the Catholic church. Does what happened in Ireland hold any implications for the U.S.?
Not directly. Same-sex marriage is well on its way to being a done deal in America. But the fact that the Church has lost its once-tight hold on the Irish populace does have some resonance.That power had been enormous: Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Ireland until 1993, and divorce wasn’t legalized until 1995. The decline in the Church’s civic authority in Ireland is directly attributable to its loss of moral authority owing to scandal, some (though hardly all) of it involving pedophilia. The effect on the Church’s clout was rapid and devastating. Roughly 62 percent of Irish voters approved of same-sex marriage, an unimaginable phenomenon two decades ago.
It’s worth noting that as the Irish voted, a scandal broke open involving one of the most politically well-connected and moneyed organizations opposing gay and women’s rights in America: the Family Research Council, the evangelical Christian propaganda and lobbying organization founded by James Dobson. The organization’s Washington operative Josh Duggar was confronted with multiple allegations that he had molested children when he was a teenager. Duggar, who is now 27, is also a reality-show star on the TLC series 19 Kids and Counting, itself a religious-right propaganda effort in opposition to birth control. Before the revelations, Duggar had sidled up to Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee, who continues to defend him even after the revelations of his assault on children. Duggar has now resigned from the Family Research Council, but perhaps on a small scale, this latest scandal will further undermine the hold that family-values hucksters still have on GOP stands against gay and women’s rights.
Fox News, which will broadcast the first Republican presidential debate later this summer, plans to limit invitations to the top ten candidates only. (The count of likely candidates currently stands at 18.) Is Fox’s control over this event good for the GOP, or not?
Potentially very good indeed. Say what you will about Fox News, Roger Ailes is one of the most brilliant showman that television has ever seen. Should he take advantage of this opportunity, it’s a win for both his network and his party.
Right now, that would not seem the case. The announced plan for the August 6 debate, in which the field is narrowed to ten by some loosey-goosey formula of unspecified opinion polls, promises a tedious result: a rushed round robin of rapid-fire talking points and canned one-liners. No one would watch except Fox’s elderly hardcore audience and the political press.Worse, there’s a real possibility that Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — beards needed by a GOP eager to demonstrate that it isn’t hostile to women or African-Americans — may not even make the cut. The ensuing controversy would turn an otherwise instantly forgotten event into a public-relations disaster for Republicans.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The primary debates are not subject to the tight Presidential Debate Commission rules that govern the debates in the run-up to the election. Ailes can do whatever he wants. Nothing else is happening in August. Why not turn this ho-hum event into dynamic television? Why not put all 18 candidates on stage to slug it out in a daring new format not built around static flag-decorated podiums? Why limit the running time to two hours? Why stick to the dutiful and predictable moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace? What about a Great Republican Debate Marathon that would bring in an unexpectedly large audience, allow a real testing of the contenders’ wit and policy positions, and put the tightly controlled campaign of Hillary Clinton on the defensive? This would seem to be a no-brainer. And there is no one in television news or television fake news who has the ability of Ailes to pull it off.
What would the format be? One outside-the-box idea might be to bring back the boxes of the old game show Hollywood Squares. Allow the candidates to dress however they want and to use props if they care to. (Of the 18 candidates, surely one of them must be an amateur puppeteer who can help bring back the glory days of the Squares fixture Wayland Flowers and Madame.) The prized real estate of center square, once monopolized by the late, great Paul Lynde, must be assigned on the basis of talent, however, not polling — which means it must go to Donald Trump, a proven prime-time entertainer and a master of Friars Club–vintage insult humor. Just in recent weeks, he has mocked Fiorina for getting “viciously fired”from Hewlett-Packard, called Jeb Bush a “total fool,” and said of Marco Rubio, “I don’t even know how he could be running for office.” Would people tune in? You betcha. But Ailes is such an original, he could probably devise an ingenious format of his own. The 75-year-old media guru who first came to prominence as the guy who miraculously repackaged the woebegone Richard Nixon for television in 1968has a chance here for a triumphant last hurrah.
Martin O’Malley is expected to announce his bid for the White House on Saturday. Bernie Sanders is the more obvious Hillary foil — why is O’Malley running for president?
To be vice-president? Hard to imagine that will happen either. O’Malley’s big calling card was his record of reducing violent crime in Baltimore when he was the city’s mayor. As David Simon — who slammed O’Malley in The Wire — has been tirelessly pointing out since the killing of Freddie Gray, O’Malley’s policing policies helped pave the way for the city’s implosion this year. And Baltimore is as violent as ever: there have been some 30 homicides just since Gray’s death. What’s more, O’Malley was so unpopular in his own state before leaving the governorship this year that his hand-picked successor lostthe 2014 race to the Republican, in one of the country’s bluest states.
O’Malley’s rationale that he will offer an alternative to the left of Clinton is vitiated by Bernie Sanders, a more convincing left-Democrat than he is. But at least he adds a third participant to what promises to be among the most little-watched and mirthless primary debates in the history of the genre. Not even Roger Ailes could spice them up.
We’re at a particularly hyper-partisan moment in our country. As such, one would think the existence of a scientific consensus on a policy issue would offer the mainstream media a welcome oasis from the mirage of social media myths and the desert of dueling soundbites that all too often crowd out informed comment. Using such a consensus as a no bullshit baseline, an objective journalist could more honestly explore opposing arguments, measure them against evidence, and judge their veracity. This is no small thing, because if modern journalism is to continue to live up to its Constitutional promise, it can’t merely be about telling the who, what,when and where of the world any more, it must go beyond that to explain the how and why.
But time and again, the establishment media fails at reaching this higher bar. Instead of contextualizing policy debates by weaving in extant scientific knowledge or academic research, the national press all too readily churns out formulaic stories filled with superficial horserace reporting. A press corps so consistently unmoored from facts becomes very vulnerable, however, when one of our nation’s two political parties undertakes a proverbial war on science. With very little effort, policy debates can get hijacked and devolve from discussing relevant facts to lobbing ad hominem insults. This simple-minded journalistic approach renders the underlying science of any issue moot. But it’s a safer career move, since it just wouldn’t do well for an “objective” journalist to always be pointing out that, on issue after issue, one party has become fully detached from scientific reality. In a “both sides do it” media culture, no party or ideology can ever lose legitimacy, no matter how crackpot its ideas about how the world works.
Exhibit A in the mainstream media’s failure to execute this due diligence is its consistently ill-informed climate change coverage. Even though an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and man-made, the media rarely, if ever, treats this mountain of evidence as a given. Instead, it treats this reality very much like a battle of opinions or, more accurately, of belief systems: Liberals believe in climate change, conservatives don’t. Climate change is not an ideological principle or a policy outcome about which reasonable people can disagree, though; it’s an observable phenomenon. So when the media enables anyone to deny the existence of climate change, it is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
The public policy ramifications of this media failure hit home again this past Monday. That’s when the Roberts Court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a craft retailer that sued the federal government for infringing on its religious freedom. At the core of the company’s objections was its claim that four of the 20 methods of contraception mandated by the Afforable Care Act are abortifacients (i.e. they terminate an in-progress pregnancy).
The good news: just like climate change, there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim. Let’s be totally clear—the idea that IUDs and morning-after pills are abortifacients is clearly rejected by medical science. And no less than the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic agree. To all of these organizations, to whom we trust to regulate, advise, and train our nation’s professional healthcare providers, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the uterus, so IUDs and Plan B morning-after pills are contraceptives. Full stop. So, case dismissed, right?
The bad news, of course, was that there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim, and just like with climate change, conservatives on the court simply didn’t care. Never mind that the medical facts in the case strongly suggested Hobby Lobby had no real standing to sue in the first place. In fact, on page 9 of Justice Alito’s majority ruling, we find this inconvenient truth conveniently tucked away down in a footnote:
“The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation.”
Nevertheless, right-wing and “pro-life” supporters have so successfully muddied the facts about contraception, the press demonstrated little interest in correcting them. Case in point, the New York Times’ big, lead story on the decision, which whistled right past the plaintiff’s key claim:
“The health care law and related regulations require many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods. “No one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs,” Justice Alito wrote. The dissenters agreed.
“The companies said they had no objection to some forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization surgery. Justice Ginsburg wrote that other companies may object to all contraception, and that the ruling would seem to allow them to opt out of any contraception coverage.”
Notice something missing here? For some reason, the Times tells us all about which specific contraceptives Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to, but we never learn which ones they do object to, and more importantly, why, and if their objections had any scientific merit.
The Washington Post’s Supreme Court write-up at least included more specifics than the Times, but its scattershot approach leads it to fall back into the same old false equivalence framing:
“Some businesses object to offering contraception at all, while others, like the companies that brought the challenge to the Supreme Court, say offering certain types of birth control, such as IUDs, make them complicit in abortion.”
[…11 paragraphs later…]
“In this case, the companies’ owners say that four of the 20 contraceptives approved by the FDA work after an egg has been fertilized and thus are abortifacients. While many, if not most, doctors and scientists disagree, Alito said the point is that the owners believe offering such services—such as the morning-after pill and IUDs—violates their religious faiths.”
Notice, again, how Alito’s whole justification for ruling against Obamacare rests upon what the Hobby Lobby owners believe. Does the Post pushback on this citing expert medical analysis? Does it point out a lot of people believe a lot of crazy things with no basis in fact but they still don’t merit a judicial carve-out from federal health regulations. Not really. It equivocates with “many, if not most doctors and scientists disagree,” an intentionally squishy qualifier that offers little more than the pretense of context.
Tellingly, mainstream media coverage, overall, wasn’t much better than Fox News. This was how they didn’t get it right: “Dozens of companies, including Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives. The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court were those the plaintiffs say can work after conception.” In fact, the latest research suggests that IUDs and Plan B actually don’t work after conception. But even if they do, it’s important to remember that the scientific consensus clearly says that preventing a fertilized egg from implanting is not an abortion. In fact, the Affordable Care Act is explicitly forbidden from funding coverage for abortions. That “dozens of companies” are making—or, more precisely, making up—an argument to the contrary shouldn’t be worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to crafting public health policy.
This doesn’t stop some conservatives from trying to have it both ways—to both dismiss scientific consensus while pretending its on their side. Back in May, for example, GOP Senator Marco Rubio even went so far as to claim the “science is settled” that life begins at conception. No sir.Others on the right have tried to polarize the medical definition of pregnancy, claiming it is “an odd insistence” of “the Left” without mentioning all the nonpartisan medical professional organizations that endorse this same conclusion. Getting points for chutzpah and projection, one obtuse conservative snarkily dinged the “anti-Science Left” for failing to recognize that you can’t produce a life without a fertilized egg. Of course, you can’t produce life beyond a few cells unless that fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterus, but then disappearing women out of the discussion of contraceptive choice and reproductive rights is another common tactic among the right. On a related note, Alito’s 49-page opinion only mentioned “woman” or “women” 13 times.
By failing to honestly address the science at the root of the Hobby Lobby case, the media has fallen for the same old conservative spin that, for years, has also corrupted its climate change coverage. In a way, it mirrors the actions of the Roberts Court’s conservative majority, which similarly granted greater weight to the plaintiffs’ religious interpretation of medical science than to actual medical science itself. Sadly, this brazen act of judicial corporate activism was compounded by a tragic failure of explanatory journalism. And thanks to the latter, the public is less informed about broad consequences of the former. As now almost anyone—or anything, for that matter—can construct a so-called religious freedom if science and the evidentiary process need not be involved in defining the boundaries of said freedoms.
The Hobby Lobby case has set us upon a dangerously slippery legal slope. By endowing for-profit companies with unprecedented rights over their employees and unheard of freedoms from federal regulations, conservatives have set the conditions for future corporate discrimination as well as delegitimization of the government. But it is also a broader, cautionary tale about how poorly the mainstream media holds conservatives accountable for their often specious scientific claims. Facts are the most precious currency of journalists, but if they aren’t willing to speak scientific truth to power—whether it’s on reproductive rights or evolution or climate change—it’s not just the press’s reputation that suffers. We all do.
I was quoted on a Fox show. While this is somewhat surprising, the fact that I was put in the same category as Jon Stewart (apparently we are both liberal ideologues) actually left me feeling honored. The issue, of course, is the four methods of birth control that Hobby Lobby is no longer required to cover under their employee health plan due to the recent Supreme Court ruling. Megyn Kelly of Fox apparently took issue with Jon Stewart calling out claims that Plan B is an abortifacient—a drug causing abortion—as “not true” (he is correct) and my statement that “three of the four contraceptives do not lead to abortion, even using “three of the four contraceptives do not lead to abortion, the conservative definition of when life begins,” which appeared in The New Republic. Ms. Kelly claims that Plan B and ella (levonorgestrel and ulipristal acetate postcoital contraception, respectively), and Mirena IUS and ParaGard (both intrauterine devices or IUDs), “Can and do end fertilized eggs.” She is wrong.Unlike my piece or the myriad posts I have written on the subject on my own blog, Ms. Kelly offers no scientific articles to bolster her claims, but rather rests her case on product monographs—basic descriptions of the drugs—and the opinion of the Supreme Court majority. These are five men whose last biology class was likely 40 or more years ago (i.e., before the basic science evaluating these methods of contraception existed) and who do not practice medicine.
Let’s first dispense with the idea that a product monograph should even be considered. Product monographs do not contain the latest research; they are a compilation of FDA labeling requirements and corporate legal lingo used to deflect lawsuits. As more and more data emerges after a product goes to market, monographs become outdated because updating them offers no financial gain. Since I’m a doctor, not a lawyer, I’ll leave the specifics of how the case was argued to lawyers, but if the product monographs of Plan B, ella, Mirena IUS, and ParaGard were used as evidence to support the government’s case, then the government was relying on outdated and inaccurate information.
As a board certified OB/GYN, I’ll stick to what I know. The medicine.
The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) issued a statement in 2008 indicating that a post-fertilization effect for Plan B was not consistent with the mechanism of action and thus should be removed from the product labeling. There is a plethora of medical evidence (this 2013 review article has many excellent references, as does this 2011 FIGO statement) showing no post-fertilization effect on either the embryo or on the endometrium (lining of the uterus). Plan B works by inhibiting a specific hormonal surge that happens before ovulation. It doesn’t work when given on or after the day of ovulation. In one study when Plan B was given after its window of efficacy, the number of pregnancies was exactly what would have been expected had no method been used (i.e., it didn’t work). Were there a lining-of-the-uterus effect, Plan B would be expected to work after ovulation has occurred, but it doesn’t.
What about ella (ulipristal acetate)? The 2012 FIGO Medial and Service Delivery Guidelines on Emergency Contraceptive Pills state the following:
The primary documented mechanism of action for both levonorgestrel and ulipristal regimens is interference with the process of ovulation. … These regimens have been shown not to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus in several studies. …
The single 30 mg of ulipristal in ella inhibits ovulation and is insufficient to have an effect on the lining of the uterus. Those who have argued against this claim point to the drug mifepristone (a different medication) and the effects the drug haswhen itis given every day (this is not the regimen for ella)—so both are invalid arguments. What about the fact that ella can delay menses, does that belie a hidden effect on the lining of the uterus? A 30 mg dose of ulipristal acetate delays ovulation so menses may also be delayed. Further evidence for a lack of an effect on the lining of the uterus comes from the fact that subsequent episodes of unprotected intercourse after taking ellareduces its efficacy. When taken in the right reproductive window, ella delays ovulation for five days, allowing the sperm time to die, thus preventing fertilization. However, have sex a second time and the five-day hold on ovulation expires before the sperm. If ella affected the lining of the uterus, we would not see this increased failure rate with subsequent acts of unprotected intercourse. There is no basic science to support a post-fertilization effect, hence the FIGO statement. International organizations dedicated to the health of women don’t make such bold statements lightly.Kelly claims that the MirenaIUS thins the lining of the uterus, possibly creating an inhospitable environment for an embryo. While the Mirena IUS does affect the lining of the uterus, this is not believed to be its primary mechanism of action. To quote a 2013 study from the journal Contraception, “The major contraceptive action of the levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) is cervical mucus thickening.” It takes five days for the cervical mucus to be affected, hence why we tell women to use a back-up method of contraception if the device is inserted mid-cycle. The levonorgestrel in Mirena and the inflammatory response may also affect sperm function, although this effect has not been fully elucidated. The effect of Mirena on the lining of the uterus clinicallyis similar to the effect of long-term use of birth control pills, but if this effect had a contraceptive action missing a few pills each month wouldn’t matter. However, missed pills result in pregnancies all the time.
The only method with a potential post-fertilization effect is the copper IUD, the ParaGard IUD. The copper in the ParaGard IUD causes a profound inflammatory reaction that covers the entire upper reproductive tract and that is toxic to both sperm and eggs. A post-fertilization effect is unlikely in this case, though, because fertilization is unlikely. In the rare cases where fertilization does happen (Copper IUDs do rarely fail and pregnancies do occur), there is no data to support that these fertilized eggs are less likely to implant than fertilized eggs conceived without a copper IUD in place. Further evidence for a lack of effect on the lining of the uterus is the fact that the copper IUD also reduces ectopic pregnancies (pregnancies outside the uterus in the fallopian tube). Experts interviewed by The New York Timesalso reached the same conclusion. While copper can theoretically damage a fertilized egg, there is no data supporting this as the mechanism of action. When a copper IUD is inserted as post-coital contraception the mechanisms of action are less clear, and a post-fertilization effect cannot be excluded, but most experts (and FIGO) believe even in this scenario it likely works by preventing fertilization. As of 2014, the bulk of the evidence suggests that thecopper IUD when used a standard birth control (i.e., not post coitally) works by preventing fertilization. In fact, with regard to both IUDs, a review article in the peer-reviewed journal Contraception concluded the following:
The common belief that the usual mechanism of action of IUDs in women is destruction of embryos in the uterus is not supported by empirical evidence.
The hypothesis that postcoital contraception and IUDs affect a fertilized egg is an old one that was generated before today’s technology. We now have a mountain of evidence that refutes the idea that Plan B, ella, and Mirena work by ending the “life” of “fertilized eggs.” It’s theoretically possible with ParaGard, but very unlikely. (Never mind that medicine doesn’t consider a fertilized egg a pregnancy). If using the wealth of scientific data (multiple basic science articles, statements of experts in peer-reviewed journals, and international organizations) makes me an ideologue, I’m fine with that. However, I’m not sure that I’d use “liberal” as the label, I think “evidence-based” ideologue is more accurate.
Dr. Jen Gunter is an OB/GYN and a pain medicine physician based in California. She blogs at drjengunter.com and authored the book, The Preemie Primer, a guide for parents of premature babies.