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Hobby Lobby and Science

The Hobby Lobby decision exempted the corporation from providing insurance coverage for contraceptives it believed to be abortifacients. But is that belief true? And should it matter, especially as Catholic institutions decide whether to raise similar objections?

First, a clarification: two different definitions of what counts as an abortion are in play. In medical terminology, a woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo implants in the uterine wall, approximately a week after fertilization, (so on average about 7-10 days after ovulation.) Since one can’t have an abortion until one is pregnant, by medical standards contraceptives that block implantation by changing the uterine lining are not abortifacient. Roman Catholic magisterial teaching, on the other hand, holds that the developing embryo should be treated as a person from conception. Anything that blocks implantation would be considered abortifacient by those who believe that personhood starts with conception. In short, in medicine, “pregnancy” is a term that refers to the woman, while for many pro-life people and groups, it refers to the presence of an embryo.

The Hobby Lobby case focused on 4 means of contraception: Plan B and Ella, both forms of emergency contraception (EC) for use after unprotected sex, and two forms of the IUD, the copper-coated IUD and a hormone-releasing IUD called Mirena.The literature is complex and developing, and I hasten to state at the outset that I'm not a pharmacologist or an MD. But here goes:

How does Plan B (levonorgestrel) work? Clearly its principal mode of action is to inhibit ovulation. Studies here and here indicate no effect on implantation or endometrial thickness (which might affect implantation.) This was controversial early on, but the most recent studies indicate no effect on implantation. Similar pregnancy rates from use of Plan B after ovulation vs. placebo also support the conclusion that Plan B does not affect implantation. Indeed, a number of studies of implantation in vitro, in animal models, and reflecting clinical efficacy state confidently that there is no effect on implantation. (The German bishops also have given their thumbs-up to EC that doesn't block implantation. The USCCB links to statements on EC are broken.)

The principal mechanism of action of Ella (Ulipristal acetate) is also inhibition of ovulation. This drug has a longer window of efficacy than Plan B, and is approved for use up to 5 days after unprotected sex. (This is because it can block ovulation closer to follicular rupture than Plan B does.) In higher doses, Ella could affect uterine lining, but at the doses used for EC appears to have no such effect. Other studies note the pharmacological similarity of ulipristal to mifepristone, (which does terminate pregnancy.) If administered after ovulation, Ella might inhibit implantation. However, there are also indications that people who take Ella after they ovulate become pregnant at a similar rate to those who take placebo, implying that any effect on the endometrium is not enough to significantly impair implantation. In sum--the scientific jury still seems to be out on Ella and implantation, as far as I can tell.

The hormone-coated IUD releases levonorgestrel (the active ingredient of Plan B), so can act to inhibit ovulation, and to thicken cervical mucus to impede sperm movement. The copper-coated IUD impairs sperm motility. Both forms of the IUD impair implantation according to most--but not all--of the sources I checked. 

It seems that Hobby Lobby cast its net too broadly, and ruled out a form of emergency contraception that is effective ONLY pre-fertilization, Plan B. It is not abortifacient by any definition. The mechanism of action of Ella on this point seems unclear so far, while most sources agree that the IUD affects implantation. 

Why does this matter? In making religious liberty-based claims, it seems to me, truth counts. It is one thing to say that the law should respect freedom of people to believe or not believe what cannot be empirically proven. (The existence of God, e.g., pace Thomas Aquinas.) It is quite another matter for laws that put significant burdens on individuals (here, women whose contraceptive choices are limited,) in the face of data that shows that the religiously-based claims are demonstrably wrong. Obviously, reliigious liberty means that people are free to believe things that are just wrong--anti-evolutionists, young-earthers and their ilk--but surely there must be a limit to how much a person's fallacious belief can be invoked to justify limiting others' freedoms. 

Beyond the law, there is a question of scandal. The image of religious institutions is affected in matters like this, and here is where Catholic institutions should tread carefully. If Catholic institutions jump on the Hobby Lobby bandwagon, they should do so only in ways that reflect the current state of biological understanding on these questions, and they should be prepared to revise as necessary. Otherwise, the banner of religious liberty will come to seem like a right to persistent and harmful ignorance. This is truly scandalous--it would imply, contrary to the best of Catholic tradition, that faith requires rejection of reason. 


Commenting Guidelines

Actually, the data is quite good that the Copper T works by preventing fertilization, not by preventing implantation. So it is a true contraceptive, not an abortifacient. I don't know if as much research has been done on the Mirena. But the Mirena has uses for controlling uterine bleeding and so is used even in women who do not need contraception (perimenopausal women with hemorrhaging issues, for example).

I agree that it is important we have the facts straight, or whatever position we take is undermined. I appreciate that the dialog about Hobby Lobby in Commonweal has so far been pretty civil in the blog...

What's discouraging is that the court took Hobby Lobby's assessment of the medications over the information given by  the e American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.  Like the court, I think that most people for  Hobby Lobby don't actually care about the facts.

An article on the subject ...

I think its kind of a tempest in a teapot since birth control pills run between $15 -$50 a month if you pay for them yourself.  There are a lot more expensive health-related costs: deductibles, co-pays, other exclusions, dental, vision etc, that are still unaddressed and are not even on the radar because everyone's fighting over contraception.

If I worked for a Catholic insitution and they said they wouldn't cover my contraception, but could generously subsidize a low-deductible, modest co-pay, free generic drugs, comprehensive dental and vision for me and my family, I would  not feel there would be any scandal at all, I would be happy for the good insurance coverage. 

Lisa, thanks for your objectivity, and particularly for your two concluding paragraphs.  Good post.

The statement that a woman is not considered pregnant if the fertilized embryo isn't affixed to the uterine wall is almost technically correct, (one can be ectopically pregnant) but skirts the issue of whether life has been initiated.  The fertilized egg is a genetically distinct human entity with a soul.    

The fertilized egg is a genetically distinct human entity with a soul.   Sorry - this is a wish, opinion, etc.  This is exactly what Lisa is trying to objectively, rather, fall back to a cultic notion that admits neither science nor rational thought.

Your statement might fly if you leave out *with a soul*.   And please explain why in the natural course of things, roughly 2/3rds of all fertilized eggs fail to implant - does this mean that they have been *aborted* - was God the abortionist?  Your statement is unnuanced and as such only creates polarizations - not dialogue.  It is a nice poster phrase that says nothing.

I think Irene makes an interesting point: Employers who are a little more PR savvy could probably "sell" employees on their decision not to pay for contraception if they made up for it their having to pay contraception out of pocket with improved dental/vision coverage. The cost of having a tooth crowned is now $500 or more. You can buy 10 or more months of birth control for that.

This solution, however, ignores that:

a) Employers are not allowed to duck contraception coverage under Obamacare regulations (except churches, church affiliated, and, apparently closely held corporations whose five or fewer controlling owners object).

b) Women take hormone therapy for medical conditions such as endometriosis or replacement after a hysterectomy at a pre-menopausal age.

c) Women who want to ensure they don't get pregnant because of diabetes or multiple past miscarriages may want to opt for sterilization rather than NFP, which gets dicey once you're in peri-menopause. The alternative to that is no sex and separate bedrooms, always a great way to enhance marital relations! Maybe the Catholic employer would pay for a nice bolt lock for the bedroom door ...



John Walton,

I appreciate your contribution to this discussion.  Thank you.


Well to at least some point, Catholic teaching on when life begins really does ignore science.  As Bill deHaas points out, something like 2/3 of all fertilized eggs never become implaned and thus never have a change to progress beyond the very initial stage of growth into a real person.  The idea that "life begins at conception" is really based on an older understanding of how gestation works in fact.  Really not much different from Gallileo.  the teaching hasn't caught up with the facts.  In that case it was the fact that the sun not the earth is the center of the solar system.  In this case it is that a fertilized egg is not a sufficient condition for life to begin.  That egg must also be implanted in the womb before there is any chance for it to grow into a person as we understand the term. 

One thing that is interesting to me though, is that the Hobby Lobby claim isn't exactly consistent with Catholic teaching, despite the huzzahs from the UCCB.  Their claim seemed to be that they objected to paying for abotifacients.  In Catholic teaching, that is really not relevant.  The Church believes that every sexual act should be open to the possibility of conception (except of course when it doesn't believe that, eg natural family planning).  So whether a particular method does or doesn't "abort" the fetus is really pretty irrelevant when it comes to artificial birth control. 

The final and really bizzarre part of this decision is that according to Sam Alito, facts are irrelevant.  It is only belief that matters.  Hobby Lobby argued that it opposed paying for abortifacients, when in fact the items at issue are not that.  But that is irrelevant. Alito's world, "truthiness" (a "truth" asserted "from the gut" or because it "feels right," without regard to evidence or logic) prevails.  Next time you hear a judge or lawyer talk about th efacts of a case, remind him that facts don't matter.  Truthiness does.

Galileo?  Didn't he say that planets have circular motions and that comets were a play of light while mocking his contemporaries who had it right on these matters?  He got in trouble not for his science but for his sarcastic demeanor toward the Pope (who had been his supporter).  The Church sinned and acted very badly when it placed him under house arrest.  The Church rightly owed him the apology that JPII offered.  But let's stop perpetuating the myth that the Galileo affair was a clash of a noble scientist against a superstitious religion. I mean, if we really love the truth and value facts, can't we take a wholly realistic view toward Galileo and stop using him as a boiler-plate prop to wield against the Church in every discussion?

It's not that the Catholic church is historically against science, per se ... there have been lots of Catholic scientists ... but the church *is* against scientific facts that refute or undermine its teachings.  The badness is that the church has the  agenda of protecting its teachings even at the expense of the truth.

Does the fact that Galileo did not get everything right negate the fact that Church leaders taught and insisted, with threats and actual punishments, on the truth of something false? And moreover, something that humbler men might have seen to be out of their purview?

People might talk less about "the Galileo affair" if Church leaders would ease up a little on the magisterium shtick and occasionally acknowledge with the rest of us that like benighted travelers, they're not always sure of the right path.

Crystal - whyever would you think that?  I don't know of any scientific facts that the church denies in order to protect its teachings.  Certainly, the post that Lisa wrote doesn't provide any examples.


The example from the issue of this post is that the church (not just Hobby Lobby) deems contraception as abortifacients  ...  "The drugs that Americans would be forced to subsidize under the new rule include Ella, which was approved by the FDA as an ‘emergency contraceptive’ but can act like the abortion drug RU-486. It can abort an established pregnancy weeks after conception."

But that is NOT true ... "Morning After Pills Don't Cause Abortion, Studies Say" ...

Hence the disregard for the truth on the church's part.

PS - maybe the US bishops need to talk to the German bishops ... :)

Crystal - regarding Ella - here is what Lisa Fullam concluded in this post: '' In sum--the scientific jury still seems to be out on Ella and implantation, as far as I can tell."  So do you think Lisa is just flat-out wrong, as wrong as you seem to think the bishop are?  I have read her writing here at dotCom, and I assume you have, too, and I would not be inclined to accuse her of conspiring with the US bishops to deny scientific truths :-).






Perhaps Lisa hasn't read the latest info on those drugs?  The aricle I mentioned at NPR states ...

"when it comes to Plan B, there is now fairly definitive research that shows the only way it works is by preventing ovulation, and therefore, fertilization .... a study published just last year led the to declare that Plan B does not inhibit implantation .... studies have also shown that ella, like Plan B, doesn't prevent pregnancy if a woman has already ovulated. Women who took the drug after ovulation got pregnant at the same rate as those who took nothing at all. She says that strongly suggests it does not have any effect on blocking implantation."

Check the article for links to the studies ...

A couple have people have mentioned a statistic that 2/3rds of all fertilized eggs fail to implant, and elsewhere others have mentioned a high rate of very early miscarriages. In the first place these statistics are at best an educated guess; much of the time a woman wouldn't be aware of a pregnancy or potential pregnancy at this stage.  In the second place, this is a red herring, irrelevant to the discussion of the morality of the issues at hand. Because the discussion is about  human agency, not acts of nature. The truth is that we don't know at what point a zygote or blastocyst can be said to be possessed of a soul, it is not something science is capable of proving one way or the other.  Yet we do believe that each of us has a soul.  For all we know, God endows these failed early beginnings of human life with souls, and takes them to Himself after their incredibly short time on earth.  You know; the landowner and the vineyard and the day's wage. 

The comment above should read "A couple of people..."  Wish there was an edit button.

I appreciate the note about differing definitions of pregnancy and abortion. It is fine for different contexts to use the definition that is the most relevant. As long as people are clear about what definition they are using, it isn't a problem.

We also need to be careful about how we interpret the science. A lot of the commentary has transformed scientific statements indicating uncertainty whether a particular pathway contributes to the effectiveness of a treatment into statements that the treatment definitely uses that pathway. Furthermore, we need to be careful to consider the size of an effect in addition whether we can measure an effect. Just because we can measure a difference doesn't mean that it is large enough to care about.

We also need to take into consideration the high rate of failure for implantation even without contraceptives. If the change in likelihood is within the variation among healthy woman, does it matter?

Finally, does the net effect matter? If the prevention of fertilization prevents more failures to implant more than the prevention of implantation causes such that the expected number of failures to implant goes down, is that a good thing rather than a bad thing?


If they have souls, Heaven is going to be weird. That doesn't mean it's false (Heaven is certainly going to be weird in many ways).

It's actually pretty hard to prove 'anyone' has a soul, even from a Christian perspective  ...

Ryan, yes, I'm looking forward to Heaven being weird! Of course from this side anything is pure speculation; but I would like to think in heaven that we attain the potential that it wasn't possible for us on earth.

Crystal, the word soul has a lot of baggage, maybe we should just call it the part of us that survives death.  I realize we can't prove that either. But as Paul put it, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

There is no consensus as to the status of a fertilized egg even in the scientific community. However, because of the ambiguity surrounding it, research studies on fertilized eggs are subject to strict ethical parameters and guidelines; stricter than research on other biological matter.

At issue is access to drugs that may be an abortificient. On that poiint, given the ambiguity, the decision needs to fall on the patient who, with appropriate information, make an informed decision. Clinics, hospitals (Catholic or not) should not be arbitrarily making these choices.

With respect to Hobby Lobby, the employees are not denied access to these medication, the company is saying that it is not going to pay for these through the insurance coverage and they made their arguement on religious and not solely scientific grounds.

Nobody, including Hobby Lobby, is suggesting that women should not have access to these medications. 

If Catholic institutions jump on the Hobby Lobby bandwagon, they should do so only in ways that reflect the current state of biological understanding on these questions, and they should be prepared to revise as necessary.

This, indeed, is the relevance for Catholic institutions and it will be interesting to see how this is being addressed by those institutions. Are these drugs, for example, covered at Catholic hospitals and institutions?

Katherine, yeas, I'm hoping there's a part of us that survives and that there's a heaven too.

Katherine - you state:  "In the second place, this is a red herring, irrelevant to the discussion of the morality of the issues at hand. Because the discussion is about  human agency, not acts of nature. The truth is that we don't know at what point a zygote or blastocyst can be said to be possessed of a soul,...."

Actually, would suggest that your response is the red herring - it is the old hierarchical dodge - when you can't explain something, use *natural law*.

Fact - in terms of pro-life in the medical, scientific, social agency fields, *human agency* is used almost exclusively to address risks, threats, and potential death to human beings - we don't leave up to *acts of nature* e.g. brain surgery; by-pass surgeries; to name a few.

And yet, when it comes to reproduction, the church has knee-jerked into what Ms. Kaveny calls a *cultic stance* - so, you have Humanae Vitae that does not permit contraception (and we know now that this papal decision had more to do about papal power, precedence, and fear than anything having to do with the merits of the issue and it negated the overwhelming approval that the Papal Birth Control Commission gave it.

The same process is involved here - the process of fertilization happens and more than 50% of the eggs fail to implant  (sorry, this is a proven fact of research studies).  If it is *natural*, we say and do nothing.  Now, if a family, married couple, etc. use good judgment and decide to use *artificial* contraceptives, the church objects.  If a couple, for whatever reason, find that their contraceptive failed or that they are pregnant and this was unplanned (2/3rds of all abortions are because of an unplanned pregnancy), why is the use of artifical means to stop implantation rejected - because they choose to use *artificial means* - as stated above, we do that millions of times a day to save lives.  Why is reproduction carved out as different?

And, agree, we don't know when the egg, ovum, fetus, etc. has a soul (Thomistic theology said after 90+ days).  Why is your knee jerk to *conception* the automatic fallback (it wasn't in the church for 1500 years)/  Why can't scence have some input into this decision?

George D - many catholic bishops and dioceses have permitted the use of Plan B, Ella, etc. in catholic hospital ERs for victims of rape, incest, etc.  (Massachusetts dioceses are a good example of this).   And these precedents and local decisions have raised questions when the *black and white* (or the Greens of Hobby Lobby)  answers start to flow.


Let us be clear about the word game in play: to redefine "pregnancy" as implantation, rather than conception, is perhaps a convenient moving of the goal posts to allay the scruples of those who want to use abortiofacients, to give big Pharma more money, and to fudge the action of at least three of the four means which Fullam herself admits can function post-conception.  But the average person on the street would not instinctively say pregnancy begins at implantation, nor is there any scientific reason for doing so.  After all, nothing else happens at implantation than that the developing embryo moves to the next developmental stage in order to continue developing.  Nothing changes.  No new DNA. No new genetic identity.  Just continuity with what was before implantation (but not what was before fertilization).  To say arbitrarily that a "pregnancy" has begun because the developing embryo has advanced to the next stage of development necessary to maintain his or her viability allows us to say that since abortion also prevents continuing development, the woman must have not been pregnant, since development is no longer going on.  So, we can now have abortions without pregnancy?!

Let us be clear about the word game in play: to redefine "pregnancy" as implantation, rather than conception, is perhaps a convenient moving of the goal posts to allay the scruples of those who want to use abortiofacients

Sigh .... both Plan B and Ella stop ovulation .... there is no egg, no fertilization,  implantation is not an issue, and there is no abortion. 

We were namers from the beginning.

So the Lord God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name.

In all those cases, the flesh-and-blood animals and birds came first, and the names after. There was a lion before there was "lion," and a finch before there was "finch." But we are a striving race, always looking to exercise our powers and extend their range. Soon we turned to our hopes and fears,  and in giving them names, we came to believe that they were as substantial as elephants.

Soul is one of those things that we have denominated into existence. Its father is fear of death and its mother is hope of a better existence beyond the curtain, when all wrongs will be righted. Maybe we have hit upon the truth, and that immaterial, unobservable, ethereal thing is what we really are, and it animates the rough outer coat we call our bodies. But there is little evidence for it. It never explained much. And a better understanding is beginning to emerge.

We need not fear any loss of dignity. For if we are, with the rest of life, beings entirely of this astonishing world, we are all the more subtly and marvelously wrought.

John Prior, I am astonished at this extreme nominalism. That a zygote has a full human DNA (though potentiallys subject to splitting into monozygotic twins) is in any case precisely not a matter of "naming" but of verifiable fact.


As to "soul", a term beloved of philosophers like Plotinus and poets like Wordsworth and "the atheist Shelley" as well as of theologians, I don't see it being dislodged by "a better understanding". Science has not explained consciousness, and even if it did it would not do justice to the phenomenon of consciousness, which is indeed immaterial and ethereal but not unobservable -- at every moment we are looking into the world of soul. 

Bill deH., you misread what I was trying to say.  I probably didn't express it very well.  I was not trying to defend Humanae Vitae or the natural law theory.  I didn't mention either of them; in fact I actually agree with much of what you said about them. Yes, we do interfere with nature, all the time. Sometimes we accomplish very good things, other times there are unintended consequences. Sometimes the good things and the unintended consequences go together.  My point was simply that we aren't responsible for "acts of nature".  We are responsible for what we do.  We have an obligation to get it right; or as right as we are able. The fact that in nature there appears to be a lot of loss of life in the very early stages is not an excuse for us to be casual about causing more of it.

Sigh .... both Plan B and Ella stop ovulation .... there is no egg, no fertilization,  implantation is not an issue, and there is no abortion. 

Crystal, you are fighting a losing battle with some Catholics about this. The fear is that if ovulation and fertilization occur first and THEN someone takes the emergency contraception, emergency contraception could prevent implantation, thus causing an abortion according to Catholic definitions of pregnancy, even though the pill's user would never know for sure. Some folks just don't believe what the science says; some will tell you that plain old birth control pills themselves have abortifacient properties.

If you confessed to using emergency contraception to your priest, I don't know how it would be handled. Would it be assumed that you had aborted a zygote? That you were guilty of complicity in a possible abortion? Or were guilty of illicit sexual activity and using artificial contraception? My guess is that it would vary from priest to priest.

There are further concerns that the pills would be handy for rapists and incestuous relatives to use to cover their crimes, or that the emergency pill makes women less vigilant against the consequences of a drunken fling.

All of this culminates in the claim that artificial contraception and engineering of women's sexual cycles has made us coarse and cheapens sex.

There's a lot to unpack in these claims, and I fear I will be unpacking them still on my deathbed, when it's too late and even though I am far beyond the age where any of this touches me directly even now.

Some time ago, I decided I should not discuss contraception, homosexuality, or abortion with Catholics, though I do follow these discussions and use them as food for thought. So I should follow that decision and get on offa here.

@Crystal, et al, indeed, I found many folks asserting that Ella also acts only pre-implantation, and that the claim was made based on pregnancy rates, which seems like a good empirical measure to me. I couldn't find a scientific paper to back that up, though. If anybody out there has an academic reference, I'd be grateful for one. Similarly for the IUD: I found a 1989 essay by Slevin that seemed very convincing, but it didn't seem to affect subsequent writing on the mode of action of the IUD. Indeed, official documentation (specifically label inserts) changes more slowly than scientific progress, but I'd have thought word would get around by now. Again, if there's anything solid since then, I'd  love to have it--the copper coated IUD is the most effective means of emergency contraception, so it's an important question.


@John g., OK, but notice the opposite situation: if "pregnancy"means only the presence of an embryo regardless of implantation, does that mean that a man with a living embryo in a vial in his pocket (not impossible) is "pregnant"? There are arguments to be made for either definition of pregnancy, istm.


Here's one study ... ... that concludes this about emergency contraception ... "LNG-EC prevents pregnancy only when taken before fertilization of the ovum has occurred."

And this page cites a lot of studies ...

Katherine - thanks for the generous reply and agree with you.  My point about human action is that we need to unpack some of the excellent parts of Humanae Vitae that focused on family decisions that are both moral and eithical and not get sidetracked by an argument over *artificial*.

Reproduction is a biological process that has human emotional/ethical/moral overtones.  Thank Lisa Fullum for trying to drill down, make distinctions, and provide descriptions based upon research and actual science before just knee jerking to statements such as:  life begins at conception or personhood begins at conception.  Ms. Raber said it well - we need to avoid the extremes including biologism; include women in this debate;the family in this debate; etc.


The fear is that if ovulation and fertilization occur first and THEN someone takes the emergency contraception, emergency contraception could prevent implantation, thus causing an abortion

The studies show that this *does not* hapen.  The drugs do not prevent implantation of already fertilized eggs.  The NPR article makes all this clear.


The science seems to show that Plan B and Ella do not cause abortions  - they stop pregnancy by stopping ovulation, and when a fertilized egg already exists, they don't affect it.

Having said that, I am coming to believe that the wide acceptance of this science will not affect conservative religion's opposition to contraception and emergency contraception .... Randall Balmer once gave an interview about how the religious right has changed its position on abortion to use it as a wedge issue ... ... and I think that the real issue for conservatives isn't abortion, it's controling people and consolidating power.  Once contraception has been shown not to cause abortion, they will simply move the goal posts.

Those "conceptus" which don't implant most likely fail for some simple biological reasons -- that doesn't mean that they don't have souls, or are not part of God's larger plan. God is the ultimate risk-taker.

Sorry for being un-nuanced, thought I was just being clear in 140 words or less.  Ever study metaphysics?

John M Grondelski, thanks for that comment.  You have it exactly right.

Crystal, if you really want to persuade anyone, I suggest you engage John M Grondelski's comment.  Waving NPR and NY Times links under people's notices without engaging the arguments isn't likely to accomplish that.  

I don't know if you have ever observed a medical-injury lawsuit?  I have.  Each side brought in an eminently qualified medical doctor.  Each doctor, under direct and cross examination from the respective sides' legal counsel, gave evidence that contradicted  the other's, and took turns alternately instructing and confusing the jury (on which I sat, so I can speak to the jurors' states of mind).   Science is science, and virtually everyone, including Catholic bishops, accepts its authority within its proper sphere (accepting its limits is another matter), but the epistemology of science is not always straightforward, as I expect you know, as you've mentioned, I think, that you have a degree in philosophy.  

The only reason I engaged you under this topic is because you wrote, "the church *is* against scientific facts that refute or undermine its teachings.  The badness is that the church has the  agenda of protecting its teachings even at the expense of the truth."  I can tell you that you're wrong about this.  This is not to say that there aren't Christians whose view of science is antediluvian and denialist.  But don't confuse them with the Catholic church's teaching office.  

Bishops are not scientists, and they approach scientific questions from a rather different point of view than researchers and engineers, as frequently their interest is not so much in the science itself and its commercial applications as in the morality of the technology - a field in which, it's worth noting, researchers and engineers have no especial expertise nor claim to authority unless they've acquired it outside their scientific endeavors.  As with many other subject matters, bishops rely on subject matter experts to inform them.  Speaking as a non-scientist myself, my understanding is that nobody, but nobody (except God :-)) knows with 100% certainty whether Ella prevents a fertilized egg from implanting.  It's not directly observable.  So we collect information by indirect means, make inferences, and estimate likelihoods.  In short, we use our judgment.  And because this is a morally fraught topic, the judgment is prudential in nature

This explains how it can be that (apparently) the German bishops accept the use of Ella as a rape-kit treatment in their hospitals, but many American bishops apparently don't.  I don't think the German bishops (and some American bishops) are notably more scientifically informed or pro-science than their American brethren.  It's more likely that both sets of bishops have tried to make prudential judgments in good faith, and the outcomes of those judgments aren't always going to be the same.

It's entirely possible that science someday will be able to give a more definitive answer to the question of whether Ella prevents a fertilized egg from implanting.  If that happens, and the answer is "no", then we may look to the bishops eventually to come around on Ella.  I would just ask that you don't detract the bishops as having some hidden agenda because their policies don't align with what someone told an NPR reporter.  



Sorry.  When it comes to the US bishops, my default position is cynacism, I guess.  Sure, the findings of scientific research are often open to interpretation, and even science has agendas that can skew findings. At the end of the day though most of us live our lives believing the consensus of scientific research.

  The subject of contraception and the Catholic church bothers me on every level, from the theology behind the church's view to the science they seem to want to ignore, to the way the US bishops use this issue politically.  I know from experience that it is pointless to try to change people's minds on these issues, but I've decided that it's worthwhile to at least publically state what I believe to be true.

John Walton stated - God is the ultimate risk-taker.  Agree - so why can't one think that God allows responsible adults to decide how best to form, raise, and support families rather than allow folks to arbitrarily decide when a person is or when a zygote is a person, etc.  That is also ultimate risk-taking in the very creatures he loves.

Crystal, I don't think the Church is "ignoring" science so much as it is demanding, as Jim points out, a higher degree of proof that the drugs do what they say they do, i.e., arenot abortiofacients. You can feel frustrated with the Church's teaching on contraception (I share it). But perhaps you can also feel Mr. Grondelski's skepticism with the notion that drugs always do what they claim to (or claim not to).

For many Catholics, and I think Jim has expressed this several times, there is no teaching more sacred than that of the sanctity of human life even (and perhaps especially) in its most microscopic form. Once life has been created, it may not be destroyed or meddled with by human engineering without great sin. 

This idea has fostered great compassion in many people; if you can truly feel horrified by the idea that a zygote might be destroyed or threatened, a tiny dot no bigger than a pencil point which no one ever sees outside a microscope, think what you must feel if a toddler or an elderly grandmother is threatened. 

So I have to respect this line of thinking even while I cannot wholly enter into it. 

Sorry, all; just can't keep my mouth shut.


I can't keep my mouth shut either :)

For many Catholics, and I think Jim has expressed this several times, there is no teaching more sacred than that of the sanctity of human life even (and perhaps especially) in its most microscopic form. Once life has been created, it may not be destroyed or meddled with by human engineering without great sin. 

This idea has fostered great compassion in many people; if you can truly feel horrified by the idea that a zygote might be destroyed or threatened, a tiny dot no bigger than a pencil point which no one ever sees outside a microscope, think what you must feel if a toddler or an elderly grandmother is threatened.

That sounds good and perhaps some people do feel compassion because of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, but it makes weird then the Catholics who are for the death penalty, the Catholics who are not anti-war pacifists, the Catholics who contribute to the poverty that destroys people, etc. 

I think I'm a pretty compassionate person - I contribute to charity, I'm a vegetarian, a pacifist, etc. -  yet I don't feel anything for or about embryos.

PS - saw this today "When Beliefs and Facts Collide" ...


@bill -- becuz God is perfect and we aren't. 

I am certainly not a zealot requring Scaret "A"s emblazoned upon the tunics of women etc etc.

JOL @ 4:48 am,

How did my name get into that first paragraph of yours, when there wasn't so much as a z, let alone a zygote, from beginning to end of my comment? Be that as it may, I affirm that zygotes are real things in this world, like lions, and existed long before they were named. But your reference to monozygotic twins has raised other questions. If the soul is infused at conception, what happens when the zygote divides to become identical twins? Does each twin receive half? Then what is half a soul? Is it equal to a whole soul? Does a spindle appear and pull the halves apart? Or does God perhaps just chip in another one? How would anyone begin to investigate those questions?

And then there is your second paragraph. Wordsworth? Honestly, Wordsworth? That's an argument? And better still,

Science has not explained consciousness, and even if it did it would not do justice to the phenomenon of consciousness...

Does that mean that if science explained consciousness, it would not explain it? I see.

Work on the brains and nervous systems of humans and other animals is making slow but steady progress. No one expects it to be finished soon. But remarkable insights have already been made into diseases, malfunctions, and abnormalities of those systems, which open up new possibilities for study and a reasonable hope of understanding normal brains better.

If the incorporeal soul is really the seat of perception, cognition, imagination, memory, decision-making, and everything else that makes us distinctly human, why is that two-pound slab of meat taking up so much space in our upper story?


Thank you for links, but they seem to reaffirm that Levonorgestrel, Plan B, doesn't block implantation, and Uliprestal, Ella, might but isn't certain yet. (It'd be a secondary mechanism of action, certainly, i.e., if it ever acts that way, it'd be less common than by preventing ovulation. That uncertainty, though, carries a lot of weight for life-at-conception folks.) The German bishops duck the mechanism question, saying only that EC drugs thst don't block implantation are okey doke. But I don't have access to the best medical databases, so still grateful to anyone who can provide data for Ella or the IUD that doesn't say they can block implantation...

I'm wondering about funding for research to anser these questions--they're tricky, but not impossible to answer, as was the case for Plan B. But is there enough benefit in answering them to make drug companies interested in paying for the answers?


Yes, I see that the studies of Ella are less definite than those for Plan B (just looking at what I could find and access at Google Scholar).  I wonder of there's a dichotomy between those who wonder if EC causes an abortion and those who actually want to use the drug.  Those who seem the most  concerned about the possible abortion effects (or about the use of any contraception) are maunly a minority who would probably never use the product anyway, so perhaps drug companies won't find it cost effective to do all that's required to get a definite answer?

Thanks, John Prior - *ridiculous is as ridiculous does* (JOL)

Really, let's just all agree that *God* is a *watchmaker* and he moves, shifts, decides, names, etc. every tiny particle until, suddenly, it is a child.  There is no human freedom; there is no human responsibility - God, the watchmaker, just manipulates all of this and human beings are not to intrude sometimes.  (but, other times, they can - SCOTUS, US bishops, and the evangelicals will let us know)

One thing I can predict - we will never see this number of *catholic* supreme court judges again - their tenure has been a sad spectacle.


I don't think predictions about the future of Catholics on the Supreme Court or in any other governmental, academic, journalistic, business, etc. endeavor are of any value.

Those who direct the holders of various positions are playing a long game, as has been obvious to many observers for years.  (Those observers, of course, are derided for believing in conspiracy theories.)  

The NYT published an interesting (imho) article a couple of weeks ago about Roberts' long game:

There is no way to know which decisions made on the Court, in the Congress, in various governmental agencies, at the Vatican, in various diocesan offices, etc., etc. are influenced by blackmail.