If Laura Stepp at CNN is to be believed, conservatives who oppose the use of contraceptives for religious reasons have lost their faith in science and are abdicating the use of their intellect in order to maintain an untenable position.
She cites a study which analyzes survey data revealing that, since the mid-1970s, a falling percentage of college-educated conservatives claim to “trust science,” compared to relatively stable numbers among liberals, and argues that those who oppose contraception, question the Neo-Darwinist narrative of evolution, or disagree with certain political measures to address global climate change, are opposed to science in general.
This argument presumes that opposition to a particular political action is the same as distrust of the data upon which it is ostensibly based. But this is not the case. Science is the empirical study of the world around us, and it provides us with information we can use to make decisions; but it cannot tell us what should be, only what is. The choice to use contraceptives or to support legislation limiting industrial emissions may be based in part on scientific data, but the choice itself is subjective. Acceptance or rejection of a scientific finding does not necessarily dictate the decisions one makes, whether moral or pragmatic.
Just before describing (and dismissing) the proposed link between prostate cancer and contraceptive pills, a classic “falsehood” embraced by traditional-minded conservatives, Stepp points out that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, counts contraception as one of the 10 greatest health achievements of the 20th century.” When one accepts that contraception is the summit of scientific and medical prowess, to hypothesize that negative side effects may exist and warrant further study is tantamount to blasphemy. The irony here is that the very author claiming an anti-scientific bias among her opponents is herself dismissing peer-reviewed scientific studies which question the universal good of contraception, even if only to suggest an avenue warranting further exploration.
Her “personal favorite” claim made by her conservative opponents is that “a woman can be considered pregnant before her egg unites with a sperm.” Although apparently unknown to Stepp, this derives originally from a standard used for decades to estimate the time of conception after pregnancy is discovered. But it is also referenced in a recent Arizona legislative effort to prohibit abortions after twenty weeks, which includes the language, “‘Gestational age’ means the age of the unborn child as calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman.”
Despite this claim’s lengthy clinical pedigree, it is biologically incorrect to presume that conception would occur at the beginning of a woman’s menstrual period, rather than some two weeks later when she is in her fertile phase. Problems with this standard are described in, among other places, the journal Early Human Development. Inasmuch as this history may go some way toward explaining the language in the Arizona legislation, it might also be regarded as a counterpoint to the notion that pro-life lawmakers have collectively disregarded the language of the medical establishment when crafting legislation.
Finally, Ms. Stepp offers one further point to support her hypothesis that conservatives who oppose contraception have lost their faith in science: the fact that some congressmen have argued that the “morning-after pill,” or Plan B, causes abortion. While the bulk of evidence indicates that Plan B does not have an abortion-inducing effect, and that it functions by preventing fertilization from occurring (and is ineffective if it has already taken place), the fact that its mode of action has been the subject of multiple studies could be taken as an indication that the question is not extremely far-fetched.
And for the majority of embryologists who stubbornly believe that life begins at fertilization rather than implantation, a drug or device whose contraceptive action occurs after fertilization does cause an abortion. While it is certainly the subject of controversy, the argument that life begins at conception rather than implantation can hardly be classified as anti-scientific.
Ultimately, one’s attitude toward contraception cannot be defined by science alone, inasmuch as science cannot tell us whether a person ought to be prevented from existing. Religious doctrine may declare that human life bears supernatural dignity, and that the openness to generating new life is a good that should not be opposed by artificial means, but neither of these can be refuted by a scientific study.
Thus, an intellectual or religious opposition to contraception, in principle, has ramifications for the use of scientifically obtained knowledge, but does not in any way oppose the gathering of such knowledge. Far from being anti-scientific or anti-intellectual, the notion of ethics informed by religious faith provides a framework for the application of that which we learn from science—a framework which science alone cannot elucidate.
It’s troubling that an intelligent journalist like Stepp can so easily dismiss her opponents as foolish and deluded, despite the fact that every piece of evidence she raises can be easily rebutted by facts that any journalist could easily obtain. And ultimately, the complementarity of faith and science is not a difficult concept to grasp. Instead, it is those who claim that science itself requires that we hold certain political and moral convictions that distort the essential work of science, and betray their most closely held ideological beliefs.
Rebecca Oas, Ph.D., is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.
Laura Sessions Stepp, Anti-Science and Anti-Contraception
Committee on Judiciary Senate, Amendment to H.B. 2036
The American Sociological Review, Article Abstracts
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