Hobby Lobby Still Covers Vasectomies, and The Huffington Post Still Fails at Science

In response to yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, an article from The Huffington Post is going viral. The article, entitled, “Hobby Lobby Still Covers Vasectomies and Viagra,” not-so-subtly accuses the Green family of moral inconsistency and misogyny.

From the article:

“Evangelical Christians have long argued that life begins at conception, and therefore that medical procedures that disrupt the first stages of pregnancy amount to murder. In the case of Hobby Lobby, this extends to a woman taking pills such as Plan B, Next Choice or Ella, any of which would prevent her ovaries from releasing an egg that could be fertilized after unprotected sex.”

Hobby Lobby objected to covering Plan B, Ella, and the 2 IUD’s in question because the owners believe these can interfere with implantation – not because they interfere with the ovaries releasing an egg, as this article states. This is an extremely important distinction. (One can debate the scientific evidence for this belief. But that actually misses the point. Their religious convictions should still be protected, even if they think these specific forms of birth control are immoral because they’re cursed by Zeus.)

IUD

Intrauterine Device

Since a fertilized egg is, biologically speaking, a human organism…and since an unfertilized egg & sperm are not human organisms…there’s no inconsistency in the owners of Hobby Lobby covering vasectomies, viagra, (most) OCP’s, condoms, or any of the other 16 of the 20 FDA approved forms of contraception that they already cover.

The article continues:

“Perhaps taking a note from Catholic Church’s opposition to sterilization, Hobby Lobby also objected to long-term birth control methods such as IUDs, which can cost women up to $1,000. But that does not explain why Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to covering the cost of its male employees’ vasectomies.”

Sterilization and long-term methods of birth control are not the same thing. So this comparison is head-scratching. The owners of Hobby Lobby don’t object to IUD’s because they prevent pregnancy (or even because they prevent pregnancy “for a long time”), but because they believe these devices can cause the death of a human organism by preventing implantation of the blastocyst. Vasectomies work exclusively by preventing sperm from fertilizing an egg.

If the Huffington Post wishes to use smear tactics, they’re free to do so. This article, however, relies not only on a gross misunderstanding of the Green family’s moral stance, but on an embarrassing ignorance of human biology.

Advertisements

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

Note: This cross-post was written by J.W. Wartick, and was originally published HERE. I really encourage you to check out his site. 

__________

Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

The most important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, humans were initially created perfect. The fall has caused them to lose that perfection, but God’s plan is perfect and doesn’t require us to try to evolve back into perfection.

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. The assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them, but that is not a Christian notion. Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. Furthermore, the notion that our bodies are not good enough is a type of gnosticism in which we devalue the material world that God created for us.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement are sound. In particular, the argument about the haves and have-nots seems effective. The argument from bodily autonomy also carries a great deal of weight. It seems to weigh against every argument that was brought to bear in favor of genetic enhancement.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially perfect, a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but there are others besides that.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

Drowning, Rabies, Cheetahs, Hepatitis, and Atheism

Hey look, I found some science:

  1. A Proposed Decision-Making Guide for the Search, Rescue and Resuscitation of Submersion (Head Under) Victims Based on Expert Opinion (Resuscitation)
    The really fascinating part, in my opinion, is the difference in survival outcomes between cold water and warm water submersion. One ER doc I met told me about the case of a young girl who was successfully resuscitated after 83 minutes at the bottom of a frozen lake. “It is concluded that if water temperature is warmer than 6°C, survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 30min. If water temperature is 6°C or below, survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 90min.”
  2. Survival after Treatment of Rabies with Induction of Coma (New England Journal of Medicine)
    This is a pretty famous case report, which I only recently learned about after hearing a presentation from one of the authors. It’s basically the first known case of someone surviving rabies without having received immune prophylaxis. You can watch a terrifying video showing the clinical course of rabies HERE. You can watch a documentary detailing this specific case HERE.
  3. Cheetah Paradigm Revisited: MHC Diversity in the World’s Largest Free-Ranging Population (Molecular Biology and Evolution)
    MHC allelic diversity within a species is important for long-term protection against diseases. Even if a given individual is vulnerable to a pathogen, the immunological diversity across a population increases the likelihood that SOME individuals will be protected, and helps to guard against extinction. Humans have thousands of known HLA alleles, but other species (such as the cheetah) have much less diversity. This paper basically shows that free-ranging cheetahs might actually have more MHC diversity than originally thought: “We examined whether the diversity at MHC class I and class II-DRB loci in 149 Namibian cheetahs was higher than previously reported using single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis, cloning, and sequencing. MHC genes were examined at the genomic and transcriptomic levels. We detected ten MHC class I and four class II-DRB alleles, of which nine MHC class I and all class II-DRB alleles were expressed.”
  4. RNA Replication Without RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase: Surprises from Hepatitis Delta Virus (Journal of Virology)
    Hepatitis D is an RNA virus (technically a subviral satellite, since it requires coinfection or superinfection with Hepatitis B). So you would think it would use an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase to replicate its genome, right? Wrong. Turns out Hep D is a unique case. It actually uses host RNA polymerase for the job…and scientists don’t really know how the heck that’s even possible. (Since, you know, host polymerase requires a DNA template). “Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) and plant viroids present an exception which still confounds the conventional thinking. None of them encode an RdRP, and yet they can undergo robust RNA replication autonomously once inside the cells.”
    hepatitis
  5. Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to do Terrible Things (International Journal for the Psychology of Religion)
    This study uses a pretty small sample size, so I think it’s important not to overstate the conclusions. Still, the findings are pretty intriguing, and seem to support the Christian view [Romans 1:18-21] that all men possess an awareness of God (even if they’ve suppressed that knowledge…maybe even to the point of no longer being aware that they’re aware). “The results imply that atheists’ attitudes towards God are ambivalent in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response.”

Bioethics and Worldview

I recently came across this 2010 story from CBS News:

“According to a mail-in survey of nearly 4,000 British doctors, those who were atheist or agnostic were almost twice as willing to take actions designed to hasten the end of life. They were also far more likely to offer “continuous deep sedation until death” and discus end of life options with their patients.”

You can find the original JME paper HERE.

This story caused me to ask myself, “How does a person’s worldview influence his stance on bioethical issues like physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and human embryonic stem cell research?” Having discussed and debated these issues with fellow medical students, it always seems like the conversation, when continued long enough, eventually boils down to differences in ideology.

In other words, you’re never going to reason someone into changing his stance on euthanasia if he’s approaching the question from a different ideological starting point than you are.

To highlight how our religious and philosophical beliefs influence our approach to bioethics, consider this article on bioethicist Leon Kass:

“Unlike questions of segregation and, before it, slavery, where evil was clear and the only question was how to deal with it,” Dr. Kass says, “the evils that I saw close to my own area of work were ones that were embedded in very high-minded pursuits: better health, peace of mind and the conquest of nature. Yet they contained within them the seeds of our own degradation.”

The trouble wasn’t so much with science itself, he thought, as with “scientism,” by which he means “a quasi-religious faith that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name; that scientific knowledge gives you an exhaustive account of the way things are; and that science will transcend all the limitations of our human condition, all of our miseries.” Scientism’s primary goal, Dr. Kass says, “is to put the final nail in the rule of revealed religion.”

We can think about many of these bioethical conundrums in light of the question, “Can the end justify the means?”

Is it morally justifiable for a doctor to kill a patient in order to satisfy that patient’s wishes? Is it morally justifiable to dismember a developing human fetus in order to increase “net happiness”? Is it morally justifiable to kill a human embryo in order to discover new ways of treating disease?

According to Dr. Kass, the concept of “human dignity” carries powerful moral ramifications. Bioethical decisions shouldn’t be made strictly on utilitarian grounds; they need to account for the fundamental value of human life, regardless of age, race, gender, or other such attributes. Certain (noble) goals cannot be justified, therefore, if they require that one violate human dignity.

Yet atheist psychologist Steven Pinker offers a drastically different opinion in his 2008 article, “The Stupdity of Dignity“:

“The general feeling [of conservative ethicists] is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, [“dignity”] adds nothing…”

_____________________________________________________________________________

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous 1973 short story, she describes the utopian city of Omelas – a place of luxury and comfort, without sickness or fear or pain.

“A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

Yet the happiness and good fortune of Omelas must come at a price. Beneath the city, in a dark and filthy cell, a single small child must be kept in perpetual anguish.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas…They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Upon learning this truth, most of the citizens of Omelas are temporarily horrified…but they eventually come to terms with the child’s plight, rationalizing it as a necessary evil for the good of society. A few of the citizens, however, have a very different reaction.

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”