via Crisis Magazine
by James Agresti
In the buildup to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and even more so in its aftermath, prominent news outlets have been aggressively spreading falsehoods about key aspects of the case. Beyond logical fallacies about who is imposing their will on others, many reports and commentaries also contain statements that are discredited by the scientific facts at the core of this case.
Although journalism standards give commentators “wide latitude” to express their views, this is not a license to mutilate the truth. In the words of New York Times deputy editorial page editor Trish Hall, “the facts in a piece must be supported and validated. You can have any opinion you would like, but you can’t say that a certain battle began on a certain day if it did not.”
Yet, the New York Times and other media outlets have repeatedly broadcast demonstrably false claims about the Hobby Lobby case. Among the most frequent of these are as follows:
- Medical science shows that the Obama administration’s “contraception” mandate has nothing to do with abortion.
- IUDs don’t terminate human embryos.
- Morning-after pills don’t kill human embryos.
As detailed below, all of those claims are deceitful and derived from politicized, unauthoritative sources. In reality, data from highly credible sources shows that:
- The Hobby Lobby case concerns the destruction of living, viable human embryos.
- IUDs terminate viable human embryos.
- Morning-after pills may kill embryos, and claims that they don’t are based upon crass distortions of scientific studies.
What follows is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how media outlets have flouted basic standards of journalistic integrity in their coverage of this case.
What is an embryo?
As explained in the medical textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, an “embryo” is formed at “fertilization” and marks the “beginning of a new human being.” Per the American Heritage Dictionary of Science, the earliest stage of an embryo is also called a “zygote” or “fertilized egg.”
During fertilization, embryos acquire the genetic information that makes each of us human. Per a 2001 paper in the Biochemical Journal, “Sexual reproduction in mammals results in the formation of a zygote, a single cell which contains all the necessary information to produce an entire organism comprised of billions of cells grouped into multitudinous cell types.”
In more practical terms, the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancyexplains that the genetic material formed at fertilization “will determine your baby’s sex, eye color, hair color, body size, facial features and—at least to some extent—intelligence and personality.”
Science has also revealed that each human embryo is biologically unique and irreplaceable. Genetically speaking, with the exception of identical twins, once a woman conceives an embryo, the odds against her conceiving the same one again are greater than 10600 to one. For comparison, there are roughly 1080 atoms in the known universe.
What is an abortion?
As described in various dictionaries, an “abortion” involves the termination of a pregnancy. There is little controversy over that. However, there is disagreement over when pregnancy begins, and this boils over into the issue of what constitutes an abortion.
Some claim that pregnancy begins at fertilization, while others argue that it does not begin until the embryo implants in the uterus (which occurs 8-10 days after fertilization). Hence, under the second of these definitions, killing an embryo before implantation would not be considered an abortion. Instead, it would be called “contraception.”
Does the Hobby Lobby case concern abortion?
According to Annie Sneed in Scientific American, Anne Michaud in Newsday, and Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter, medical science says that pregnancy does not begin until implantation, and thus, the Hobby Lobby case is not truly about abortion. In the words of Manson, “according to the medical definition, a woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo successfully implants [in] the lining of the uterus.”
Those are but a few examples of many who have made absolutist claims to that effect, but in reality, the definition of pregnancy is highly disputed in the medical profession. For example, polls of obstetrician-gynecologists published in theAmerican Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine both show that doctors are divided over whether pregnancy begins at fertilization or implantation.
Likewise, medical literature abounds with the use of both definitions. Here is just a small sample of the countless medical texts that define pregnancy as beginning at fertilization:
- Human Reproductive Biology: “In most textbooks and in legal rulings about induced abortion (see Chapter 14), pregnancy begins at fertilization: We will also use that definition in this book.”
- Medical Physiology: Principles for Clinical Medicine: “A mother is considered pregnant at the moment of fertilization—the successful union of a sperm and an egg.”
- What Every Woman Should Know about Cervical Cancer: “The pregnancy begins with the fertilization of the ovum [egg].”
- Medical Terminology Made Incredibly Easy: “Pregnancy results when a female’s egg and male’s sperm unite.”
- Placenta and Trophoblast: Methods and Protocols: “Pregnancy begins with fertilization of the ovulated oocyte by the sperm.”
Nevertheless, writing for Al Jazeera, Marisa Taylor quotes two people from the Office of Population Research at Princeton University—neither of whom have a medical degree—stating that Hobby Lobby and other companies “are really redefining what pregnancy is, and therefore what abortion is. … Either they are very stupid, or they don’t believe in science.”
When Al Jazeera gives a platform to that kind of rhetoric while failing to report the countervailing facts, they violate a central tenet of journalism: to tell “the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it.”
Most importantly, the precise definition of pregnancy is a semantic distraction from the core of the case. The Hobby Lobby lawsuit is about the owners’ objection to being forced to pay for items that terminate living, viable human embryos. Whether one calls this “abortion” or “contraception” does not change this reality.