By James D. Agresti
July 29, 2014
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 Pregnancy explains 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 the American 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.
Do IUDs terminate viable embryos?
The Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services—which is the same agency that issued the “contraception” mandate—publishes a “Birth control methods fact sheet” that was last updated in July 2012. This document states that copper IUDs can keep “the fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus” and that hormonal IUDs affect “the ability of a fertilized egg to successfully implant in the uterus.” In other words, HHS has confirmed that these devices terminate viable embryos.
Yet, articles and editorials by Aaron E. Carroll in the New York Times, Sally Kohn in the Daily Beast, Jill Filipovic in Cosmopolitan, and countless others emphatically deny that IUDs terminate embryos. For a prime example, during an interview with Megyn Kelly of FOX News, Patricia Ireland, the former president of the National Organization of Women, said the “belief that an IUD or a morning-after-pill works against a fertilized egg is not scientifically based.” When Kelly challenged her on this, Ireland replied, “No, no, you need to do a little medical research.”
In fact, medical research proves that exact opposite of what Ireland and company have declared. For instance, a 2002 paper in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reveals the results of “a rigorous examination of the evidence on the mechanism of action of IUDs.” The study found that “both prefertilization and postfertilization mechanisms of action contribute significantly to the effectiveness of all types of intrauterine devices.”
Likewise, a 290-page report dedicated to “long-acting reversible contraception” published by Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2005 and updated in 2013 explains that “IUDs prevent pregnancy by impairing gamete [sperm and egg] viability at fertilization and they have a strong inhibitory effect on implantation.” This statement is supported with citations of five medical studies, and the report recommends “women should be informed that intrauterine devices (IUDs) act by preventing fertilization and inhibiting implantation.”
Despite all of the evidence above, Aaron Carroll reports in the New York Times that “research does not support the idea that they [IUDs] prevent fertilized eggs to implant.” He attempts to back up this claim with studies showing “that a telltale sign of fertilization — a surge of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin — occurred in only 1 percent of 100 cycles in women using IUDs. This would be consistent with the failure rate of IUDs in general.”
Carroll, however, neglects a key fact that undermines this entire line of reasoning. As detailed in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology paper cited above, human chorionic gonadotropin [hCG] “first becomes detectable relative to background levels in control subjects around the time of implantation,” and “between fertilization and implantation, substantial loss can occur. Therefore, hCG cannot be used as an indicator of fertilization, nor as an indicator of early embryo loss before implantation.”
In sum, contrary to the narrative being pushed by many media outlets, authoritative medical studies show that IUDs terminate living, viable human embryos.
Do morning-after pills destroy embryos?
The manufacturers of the three most common morning-after pills have been required by the FDA to affirm that the drugs may block implantation. Thus, the official company website for ella states that the drug “may also work by preventing attachment to the uterus.” Similarly, the website for Plan B One-Step states that the drug “may also work by preventing fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg) or by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb).”
The website for Next Choice has recently been stripped of all but two pages, and neither of these explains how the drug works. In February 2013, this same website had a page stating that “it works by preventing” ovulation, fertilization, and “attachment of the egg (implantation) to the uterus (womb).” The full prescribing information for this drug, which is currently buried on a separate manufacturer’s website, says the same, only in more guarded and technical language.
None of the above hindered the editors at the Daily Beast from publishing Sally Kohn’s claim that there is “very little evidence” that IUDs and morning-after pills destroy embryos and “every scientific and medical study says so, as does the FDA.”
How does Kohn support this claim? By linking to a story at NPR and an analysis by RH Reality Check that relies upon the very same NPR story. This NPR story, in turn, is derived from a New York Times story that is rife with falsehoods. Just Facts has conducted an in-depth analysis of these NPR and New York Times articles; and to summarize, both are based upon gross misrepresentations of scientific studies and the unsupported claims of selected scientists with partisan political agendas (more on this below).
As detailed in Just Facts’ earlier analysis, the question of whether or not morning-after pills destroy embryos is reflected in their FDA-approved prescribing information: they may block implantation. If this occurs, they destroy human embryos.
Portraying activists as neutral authorities
The BBC’s journalism standards on “Avoiding Misleading Audiences” state that reporters should provide the “credentials” of their sources so “audiences can judge their status.” More specifically, BBC’s standards on “Impartiality” state that news professionals should not assume their sources are “unbiased” and should “make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”
That standard, which is meant to prevent journalists and commentators from portraying activists as impartial authorities, has been routinely ignored by news outlets in their coverage of the Hobby Lobby case. For example, the above-mentioned NPR and New York Times articles both rely upon claims from the following individuals to support the central narratives of their stories:
- Susan F. Wood, an associate professor of health policy at George Washington University and a former assistant commissioner for women’s health at the FDA.
- Diana Blithe, a biochemist and contraceptive researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
What these NPR and New York Times articles fail to mention is that both Wood and Blithe are political donors to Barack Obama. More significantly, both are also donors to Emily’s List, a political action committee “dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office.”
Those are not isolated examples. One of the commonly cited authorities in this case is the emergency contraception website operated by Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and people associated with it. Yet, the following information is almost never disclosed: The website was founded by James Trussell, a Princeton professor who is a senior fellow with the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that operates under “guiding principles” that include support for legalized abortion. Moreover, Trussell is “a member of the National Medical Committee of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and a member of the board of directors of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Society of Family Planning.”
Even so, Time magazine describes Trussell as “a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University who has done extensive research on the subject” of emergency contraception. He is similarly described by MSN, Reuters, and a host of other news organizations. Would these same media outlets describe a board member of the National Right to Life Committee in such a nondescript manner?
Another commonly cited authority in the Hobby Lobby case is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Although media outlets regularly quote this organization as if were neutral, it has a track record of consistently opposing pro-life legislation and issuing statements that are transparently false. For instance, ACOG has declared “there is no evidence” a fetus can feel pain “until 29 weeks at the earliest” despite copious evidence to the contrary from journals such as Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Pain: Clinical Updates, and PLoS ONE.
Furthermore, ACOG was caught modifying its clinical findings on partial-birth abortion at the behest of a Clinton White House lawyer. Incidentally, this lawyer was Elena Kagan—who President Obama later appointed to the Supreme Court. Again, media coverage is virtually devoid of this information, which has the result of deceiving audiences through the omission of vital context.
In flagrant disregard for basic standards of honest journalism, media outlets have propagated claims about the Hobby Lobby case that are falsified by credible scientific publications.
Many of these news organizations have written guidelines that call for unconditional integrity. The New York Times, for example, declares that “the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach,” and the organization has “an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small.”
Whether or not those are just lofty words will be shown by how the media responds to the facts above.