Some thoughts about the Hobby Lobby case

There are many well-written opinions about the Hobby Lobby supreme court case, and I suggest reading them — especially the experiences of those directly affected by this decision. This post was written primarily to facilitate discussion of this issue with my friends. Since it is public, anyone is welcome to post a reply, though you may not receive an response.

Much has been written and is being written about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to exempt Hobby Lobby and similar closely held for-profit corporations from providing health insurance that covers a certain subset of contraception options. I have little to add to the discussion. Having read the opinions, I suspect the Court made the correct legal decision. However, this is entirely beside the point. The ramifications of this decision are a much bigger issue, and I’d like to talk about those here.

First, it’s interesting to note that the factual accuracy of Hobby Lobby’s worries about Plan B was of little importance to the Court’s decision. The court merely noted that “according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients” 1 and that it was not the place of the court to question this belief, but rather to apply the relevant laws. 2

This may be the greatest tragedy of the case. Regardless of whether this is the correct way to interpret the law, Hobby Lobby’s issues with these methods of contraception are likely misplaced. The Court, in its decision, chose some unfortunate words to describe these methods: “They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that, as HHS acknowledges, see Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 9, n. 4, may result in the destruction of an embryo.” 3 Note that the language here suggests that these methods are abortifacients - that they work by destroying an embryo. But this is by no means the scientific consensus.

The original brief said “a copper IUD is a device inserted into the uterus by a healthcare provider that works by interfering with sperm transport and fertilization of an egg and possibly by preventing implantation (of a fertilized egg in the uterus).” 4

Note how the original text emphasizes the chosen method of operation (preventing fertilization), and only includes the other as a possible (though convenient) side effect of this normal mode. The same is true of the other three methods of birth control at issue, the progestin IUD, Plan B, and Ella. It’s not even clear that these methods ever cause a failure of implantation. In fact, Wikipedia has the following to say about Plan B: 5

The primary mechanism of action of levonorgestrel as a progestogen-only emergency contraceptive pill is, according to FIGO, to prevent fertilization by inhibition of ovulation. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) has issued a statement that: “review of the evidence suggests that LNG (levonorgestreol) ECPs cannot prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Language on implantation should not be included in LNG ECP product labeling.” In June 2012, a New York Times editorial called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove from the label the unsupported suggestion that levonorgestrel emergency contraceptive pills inhibit implantation. In November 2013, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved a change to the label for HRA Pharma’s NorLevo saying it cannot prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.

Thus, it’s a misrepresentation of the evidence currently available to suggest that Plan B is an abortifacient. Furthermore, even if it did function in this way, implantation failure is perfectly normal. According to one expert, 80% of naturally conceived embryos fail to implant. 6 To give this point a religious color, this would mean that 80% of all the souls that ever existed died within about 10 days after conception. Even if these contraceptive methods were abortifacients, their effect is essentially non-existent compared to the constant, ongoing, completely natural loss of embryos due simply to the failure to implant. If this was as tragic and horrible as Hobby Lobby and others would have us think, why isn’t preventing implantation failure the primary goal of medicine as they see it?

What makes this worse is that by obstructing access to safe methods of contraception, Hobby Lobby inevitably increases the number of abortions that occur. Unlike the clearly humane contraceptive methods they are fighting, which function primarily by preventing fertilization, some abortions will occur at a point in the pregnancy when the fetus is capable of feeling pain and has some subjective experience. This entirely preventable suffering is tragic. It’s interesting to note that they take moral responsibility for their employees choosing to use certain birth control methods, but don’t take moral responsibility for their employees choosing an abortion later because emergency birth control wasn’t immediately available.

Secondly, there’s a strange bit of (apparently) wishful thinking in the Court’s decision. While they clearly don’t intend the arguments used to extend broadly beyond contraception, there’s a certain “why not?” hanging in the air. It’s this concern that Ginsburg’s dissent targets. In its defense, the Court says only this: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.” 7

Of course, the Court doesn’t want its decision to apply to vaccinations, but it’s not clear why it shouldn’t. At the least, this decision will extend the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) test to these questions. As long as a religiously motivated corporation can show that a coverage mandate is not the “least restrictive” means of providing a compelling governmental interest (widespread vaccinations), the RFRA test used in this decision would seem to overrule it.

Furthermore, the Court suggests that the government picking up the tab for corporations with a moral objection to contraception succeeds in accomplishing the government’s goals and in being less restrictive to religious freedom, and that the existence of this option is one reason the law fails the RFRA test. 8 But this would seem to apply equally well to vaccinations, or even more extreme “sincerely held” views. Some religious extremists believe that they should reject all medical care and rely on their faith to heal them. If one of them owns a business, should they be exempt from providing any insurance at all?

I suspect that this example illustrates both a problem with the current insurance system, and (ironically) a suggestion for a better way. Clearly, with corporations like Hobby Lobby setting the rules for acceptable medications, employers cannot be trusted to provide medical care. Even when employers do provide good insurance, the ideology of the system suggests that the unemployed should not have or do not deserve medical care. This is clearly unacceptable, and it’s a problem that is probably best solved by moving away from a system where two unrelated functions (employment and healthcare) are tied so closely together. A single-payer system would solve many of these problems.

Lastly, no matter what the correct legal decision was, it’s worth saying something about the attitude of Hobby Lobby and other conservative voices towards women’s issues. Much of the discussion in these circles surrounding the contraception “debate” has been sterilized of empathy towards the incredible emotional and physical toll of pregnancy and the psychological effects of rape. The position that sees nothing but the possible death of a days-old embryo as worthy of concern would be laughable if it wasn’t so destructive. It’s sad that non-issues like this will cause many women to suffer needlessly. It’s sad that we’e okay with letting corporations like Hobby Lobby dictate our medical care. And it’s sad that a group of people who claim to follow Christianity don’t show the empathy and love for others their religion supposedly advocates.

Predicting relationship success using Facebook data

Facebook recently released an analysis of relationships on their site. One graphic was particularly interesting to me. It shows the percent of relationships that last 3 months that go on to last any given number of months into the future. Here’s a copy of that graph.

Now, there are a couple of caveats here.

  • I don’t have the raw data points, I can only estimate them from the graph.
  • Facebook hasn’t been around that long. Forecasting future stability from this data is inherently risky. It seems likely that relationships could reach a point where they’re more stable than this trend predicts - say around the 10 year mark.
  • Facebook didn’t provide standard deviations for any of its data points, making it likely that this data (even with the previous caveats) is a poor predictor for individual relationships.

That said, I’ve estimated the data from the graph and plotted it. There’s a remarkable trend.

Note just how well the data fits the curve (R² = 0.9993). That suggests that within the first few years of a relationship, stability (among Facebook users) is remarkably predictable.

Interestingly, I suspected that the 3-6 month range that Facebook provides in its original graph would be a clear outlier because of instability in the early stages of relationships. (Facebook leaves out the first 3 months for this very reason.) The trend line provided above doesn’t use the first three months. Again, the fit is remarkably good.

We can use this data to predict the odds that you’ve found “true love” (i.e. that you’ll never break up with your current partner).

Now, let’s figure out what this means.

Now, if you’ve been dating more than 3 months, you can find yourself on this chart. Find the number of months you’ve been dating on the chart (if you don’t know, ask your partner). You could be anywhere along the vertical line that denotes the length of time you’ve been dating. If you’re in the “bad zone”, that means you’ll eventually break up. If you’re in the “good zone”, you won’t (at least within the 20 year window of this projection). Obviously, there’s no way to tell at this point in time which side you’re on.

But you can make a prediction (given all the caveats I’ve already mentioned). Let’s say you’re at the 18th month in your relationship. Among the group of Facebook users at this point, some are in the good group, others in the bad. We can calculate the proportion of green group members to red group members. At 18 months, the average relationship has about a 48% chance of long-term survival.

Suppose you want to wait until you’re 50% sure that your relationship is long-term viable before you decide to get married (still only 50%!); you’ll have to wait until you’ve been dating 21 months for that. If you want to be 66% sure, you’ll have to wait until month 56! (The scythe of time eats relationship more slowly over time in this model.) You can calculate your own percentage with the following formula:


Just replace MONTHS with the number of months you’ve been dating, and plug it in Wolfram Alpha.

Conclusions: Relationships are hard.

But really, if you make relationship decisions based on this data, you’re probably crazy. It’s important to remember that the calculations above assume the model is accurate for 20 years. In reality, I suspect that this model over-predicts breakups and most relationships converge towards long term stability after enough years. So the “survival” percentages may be slightly higher than this model predicts.

Additionally, the probabilistic nature of this analysis is important to notice. Your relationship isn’t preassigned into a green or red group. Nothing in this study undercuts the importance of good communication and making sure you and your partner are on the same page. And love - that’s important too. So get off the Internet, and go spend time with someone special.

Postscript: aside from the aforementioned, this post contains two simplifications.

First, it’s possible Facebook’s chart is itself a mathematical model, not the data itself, which would make the excellent fit of the trendline uninformative.

Second, the 20 year (240 month) estimate is trying to find a middle ground between two different weights on future data. As already mentioned, it’s likely that relationships stabilize more than the data predicts. On the other hand, people certainly do break up or get divorced after 20+ year relationships. The trend line converges to 0 at infinity, which isn’t accurate (we don’t live forever, for one thing). So given the lack of better data, we have to choose a year to balance between both issues. I’ve chosen the fairly ad hoc 20 year point, but perhaps a better one could be found.

The Church’s treatment of homosexuals

This is a response to a blog post by Daniel Howell, meant not to trigger an argument with Mr. Howell but to clarify and explain my own thoughts on the same topic. Since the post is public, anyone (Mr. Howell included) should feel free to respond, but the post will make the most sense in the context of the ongoing conversation with friends in which the post occurs. It’s to these friends that the post is targeted.

Mr. Howell begins by stating several points of “common ground” between his position and his readers. I think that his points assume too much about his readers and lend a false support to his argument. I’ll take these points of agreement individually. My main issues are with the first and second points.

He [God] has the right to command and demand of that creation.

This may very well be true: if God has created the universe, and that act of creation gives him rights over it, then anything premised on that point will stand. If Mr. Howell’s justification depends on acceptance of this claim, however, he will run into issues, since many people will disagree with him immediately.

At any rate, I merely wish to point out the suggestive nature of the way this claim is phrased. It suggests that the primary way in which God relates to us is that of a master over his or her slaves. As it turns out, I don’t think that is how God relates to us, most of the time. I would suggest, on the contrary, that the relationship is one based on love, God’s primary attribute (1 John 4:16). I would suggest, furthermore, that when God does command us to act, we’re commanded for our own benefit, not for his. (Matthew 11:28-29, Joshua 1:8) To suggest otherwise would mean that God is somehow dependent on us.

This is important because saying that God has the “right” to demand of us can give the wrong impression. It suggests that whenever and wherever we hear of some “command of God,” we must instantly obey the very letter of the law with fear and trembling. This is untrue. Very often commands can have multiple meanings, or purposes for their enactment. It’s up to us to use our conception of what God is like, as well as interpretative theory and context to help us discover what the words mean.

We see the continuation of this error with the second point. Putting together the Bible’s inerrancy and God’s utter “right to command” suggests that we must obey the very letter of each verse from the moment we read it. This ignores the very real issues of interpretation that we encounter when we read the Bible. Our conception of God and interpretation of the Bible can have a tremendous effect on what we actually conclude about right actions. Problems multiply. Are the 66 Protestant books the “canon,” or some other group? Do the Old Testament laws still apply? Did Paul really mean all of his words to be spoken by the Spirit? (cf. 1 Cor 7:25) (We even see interpretative questions addressed within the Bible itself. See Matthew 19:7)

In light of this, I have three points to make about Mr. Howell’s justificatory argument.

  1. The scriptural argument is thin at best. Applying the “common ground” is more difficult than it appeared; there are serious questions of interpretation and the nature of God that must be answered before we can use a “simple” verse to justify our actions. In particular, we can’t shirk answering some hard questions about the verse Mr. Howell uses, 1 Corinthians 6:9. Does the concept of homosexuality as we know it today correspond well enough with the concept as understood by Paul to justify applying the verse to our lives? These are issues even if we embrace the common ground claimed by Mr. Howell. Even more troubling questions arise if we allow ourselves to doubt, for instance, that the Bible is strictly, literally, true in the sense the Mr. Howell appears to believe it is.

    Mr. Howell does not provide any thorough scriptural justification. His primary goal seems to be showing that, given the views he expresses, he is justified in acting as he does. He provides an extra-scriptural argument in support of this claim. As I have shown, there are significant reasons to doubt that his scriptural argument holds water. Regardless, there are important reasons to criticize these other points. I address these in (2) and (3).

  2. Mr. Howell believes that his beliefs give him the duty to express his views, and appears to think that this absolves him of criticism. This isn’t true: we criticise the Westboro Baptist Church for their public statements, despite their sincere belief. We do this because we recognize that their views are hurtful to others. Similarly, many believe that negative statements about homosexuality cause psychological harm to gay people, especially children. This is supported by the much higher rate of suicide in LGBT teens. While I’m sure Mr. Howell’s goal is not to cause harm (and may even be laudable), this does not free him and others from dealing with the consequences.

    This is relevant because of Mr. Howell’s view that homosexuality is not an “identity”.

    You might struggle with the temptation of same-sex attraction for the rest of your life. But a temptation is not an identity.

    While he says he doesn’t mean that we should “pray the gay away,” what does his suggestion amount to? “Repent” of it and deny that it is an identity that a person cannot change on a whim—hardly different. One gets the impression that Mr. Howell does not have many gay friends, or does not take their experiences very seriously. His attitude towards them (despite his intentions) is harmful. These views give the lie to the claim that he’s “not going to treat you differently than any other human being.” I suggest that telling someone that their sexual orientation is worthy of shame is exactly that.

  3. Mr. Howell claims that those who would criticise him have precluded their right to do so because of their devotion to “tolerance”. It turns out, however, that he attacks a strawman instead of people who consider themselves tolerant. (And this is ignoring the fact that not everyone who would criticise him would do so under the umbrella of tolerance in the first place.)

    The sort of “tolerance” described in the article is something like the mantra “everyone is right”. Now, of course the statement “not everyone is right” is a direct refutation of that claim, but the claim itself must be denied to reject it. Therefore, “everyone is right” is a false statement. Of course no one actually holds a view of tolerance like that—that would be silly. What they actually hold is something like this: “everyone should live together peacefully” or “everyone should be respectful to the humanity in others”. Mr. Howell’s view is one that attacks the very possibility. Can we critique him for his view, while still being “respectful of his humanity”? I think we can, and our commitments may even demand that we do so. No one is suggesting that people like Mr. Howell be denied the right to free speech. But it would be rather bizarre if he used that right to demand that we enact laws eliminating the freedom to marry whomever one wants (for instance).

In summary, the view as stated in the article does not hold water on either biblical or extra-biblical grounds. Not only are there reasons to think that the Bible and God do not demand the attitudes he holds, we can still rationally criticise his behavior when his actions are harmful to LGBT people without self-contradiction.

I suggest that given the difficulty of interpretation, we should treat others with respect and love. If others believe that homosexuality is justified with respect to their interpretation of the Bible and understanding of God’s nature, I think we should respect their opinion. We, like them, should focus on becoming better people, more like the example Christ left for us.

Richard Beck puts the question nicely here. If we have to choose between being too “stingy” or too “profligate” with God’s grace, I think the only possible choice is to display God’s grace and love as passionately as we can.

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Documents: U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program

A very scary addition to our knowledge of governmental intrusion on our privacy.

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We were uncomfortable people: with ourselves and each other


We were uncomfortable people: with ourselves and each other

(via amandapalmer)

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Grand Prismatic Spring

Located in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest natural hot spring found in the US. The spring has a scalding temperature of 160 °F (70 °C), a total depth of 160 feet and a diameter of 300 feet. The vivid, rainbow colors in the spring are the result of pigmented bacteria in the microbial mats that grow around the edges of the mineral-rich water.

(via neil-gaiman)

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Some thoughts on gun control

In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, it seems the whole country is talking about gun control. The pro-control side claims that the violence indicates the need for much stronger gun legislation, while the pro-gun side claims that we should instead be more liberal with our policies. They believe that if the teachers in Newtown had only been armed, they would have been able to defend their students against the killer. It’s worth noting the obvious red herring here. How the situation could have been different does not matter now; we face the same number of funerals and cry the same number of tears. What really matters is the effect such a policy would have upon the nation as a whole: even supposing that the lives of the children in Newport could have been saved by an armed teacher, how many more would die as a result of thousands of guns being carried into schools every day?

That said, a much more insidious distraction threatens to prevent both sides from talking about the real issue. This is the temptation to focus on the guns, and gun owners, as the source of gun violence. For real change to occur, it is not enough to rewrite a few laws. Gun violence is the result of a violent culture — one where torture is openly supported, war crimes condoned, and nuclear proliferation tolerated. To eliminate violence we must destroy the culture that creates it.

Gun control advocates often point out that relatively gun-free countries (such as Canada) have much lower rates of homicide than the United States. To credit this merely to legislation, however, is a mistake. We must also look at the broader culture of the country, and investigate how this culture influences the popularity of gun ownership. When we compare this culture to our own, we see that the United States stands tall in the West as a country that is heavily armed with nuclear weapons, starts wars regularly, supports torture, and is decidedly fearful in its relations with other countries. This fear lies at the heart of the culture of violence. Why do countries participate in arms races? Why do we launch preemptive strikes at possible threats? Why do we allow military agents to torture people (untried and possibly innocent) in the hope of revealing a threat? It is because we are afraid of each other.

While no one denies that guns serve a sporting purpose, a primary reason we buy them (and the reason the Constitution specifically protects the right to own them) is the desire for self defense. We prepare to defend ourselves because we are afraid. The irony, of course, is that the more guns are in circulation, the more we have to fear from gun violence. And greater levels of fear results in greater desire for guns.

The solution, then, is not merely rewriting the laws in an attempt to force people to drop their weapons. It’s also clearly not to continue amassing guns in order to feel more secure. Like any arms race, gun reduction will take place slowly. Regardless, it is something that must happen; the threats are real and severe. Yet it cannot happen in isolation, and can only happen as part of the destruction of the culture of violence that creates it. Nuclear dismantlement is a necessity; but it’s no less critical that the United States (and other countries) cease policies of torture and drone strikes. It is crucial that we eliminate the many factors that make us need guns to feel safe. This is the only way to long term peace.

Of course, this does not mesh well with the right win’s obsession with self defense, nor the left’s insistence on legislative action, but I suspect that only through a recognition of the dangers of gun prevalence and the reasons we want them will we become independent of their power. Fundamentally, this requires a change in mindset — one that Americans unfortunately seem even further away from making.

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