Hobby Lobby Decision Means SCOTUS Picked Religion Over Scientific Fact

In its decision Monday of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby , the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that private employers with religious objections can opt out of providing birth control to their employees, as previously mandated by the Affordable Care Act. But here's the only problem with framing this case as an argument over birth control: It wasn't only birth control that Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood Specialties, and Christian bookseller Mardel wanted to opt out of providing.

The companies' issue, as stated in their formal complaint filed in September of 2012 with an Oklahoman district court, was with "abortion causing contraceptive devices," namely Plan B, Ella, and two different kinds of IUDs, which the company declared were a violation of their faith. Because they prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a uterine wall, these forms of birth control, Hobby Lobby argued, were tantamount to abortion.

The main problem with that argument? Plan B and Ella don't cause abortion — they are not part of the class of "abortifacient" medications that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into a women's uterine wall. Which means that with this decision, the Supreme Court has decided to value religious beliefs over scientific fact — a facet of the Hobby Lobby decision that's as concerning as its impact on a woman's access to contraception.

A study of emergency contraception knowledge showed that nearly one-third of women polled thought that the pills cause abortions. Apparently, Justice Alito is a victim of misinformation as well, writing in his majority opinion that the contraceptive methods in question "may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus."

According to Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the Court's majority decision, it didn't matter whether or not the medications in question actually can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.

"The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients." Alito, in a footnote, states that though Hobby Lobby "and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions," federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation, don't define the use of these forms of birth control as abortion. It doesn't matter, in other words, what science says — when it comes to religious beliefs, it appears those trump facts and evidence.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worried about the precedent being set by the Court, noting that companies could now "opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." She also wondered how the decision would affect other medical procedures.

Would the exemption the Court holds RFRA demands for employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (some Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby-decision marks the culmination of a misinformation campaign by the religious right to label certain types of birth control — from Plan B and Ella to IUDs — as abortifacients. In front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod objected "to the use of drugs and procedures used to take the lives of unborn children," when referring to birth control methods such as Plan B, Ella and IUDs, because those methods potentially prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg.

In reality, traditional oral birth control — the kind that Hobby Lobby ostensibly has no problem with — works to prevent pregnancy by preventing a woman from ovulating and by thickening the mucus of the cervix, making it more difficult for sperm to get to the uterus. The idea is that if there's no egg, there's no chance of that egg becoming fertilized and implanting.

Emergency contraception — Plan B and Ella — work in exactly the same way, by preventing ovulation. Pregnancy doesn't have to happen instantaneously (which is why it's also false to think you can't get pregnant on your period) — sperm can survive inside the body for days, and if you ovulate at any point during that time, you risk pregnancy. By preventing ovulation after sex, emergency contraception works in the same way as normal, daily birth control.

For some time, doctors thought that it was possible that emergency contraception also helped prevent pregnancy by making it more difficult for a fertilized egg to implant in the uterus. But this theory was debunked years ago, when the scientific community found compelling research that proved emergency contraception works only by preventing ovulation.

Still, even in the face of scientific proof, religious and conservative figures have continued to misinform the public about the science behind emergency contraception. Mitt Romney once called emergency contraception "abortive pills." The director of research for the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists called them "the moral equivalent of homicide." Even NPR, in a piece covering the science of emergency contraception, quoted two doctors who felt that the pills caused abortion, noting that there is no "universal medical opinion" about the pills (one source works for the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, another for the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists).

A study of emergency contraception knowledge showed that nearly one-third of women polled thought that the pills cause abortions. Apparently, Justice Alito is a victim of misinformation as well, writing in his majority opinion that the contraceptive methods in question "may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus."

It is terrifying, as a woman, to have my access to birth control restricted by a man. It is almost more terrifying, as a human being, to have my country's laws interpreted by justices ignorant of basic scientific truth. Religious freedom should not grant someone the right to rewrite the facts. The science behind emergency contraceptives is there — it just wasn't in the Supreme Court's decision.

Image: Wikimedia Commons