As part of the Republican convention last night, Cissie Graham Lynch said that “Democrats tried to make faith organizations pay for abortion-inducing drugs.”
Rachel Maddow was first out the gate with a response, claiming that Lynch was talking about birth-control pills. Rebecca Ruiz, writing for the New York Times, said Lynch had been misleading: “The Obama administration sought to guarantee access to free birth control for women, and while some groups, including an order of Catholic nuns, have fought that mandate and argued that contraception is tantamount to abortion, scientists have disputed that characterization.”
Maddow and Ruiz are wrong about this dispute. The Obama administration required many employers to cover methods of contraception even when those employers objected because they believed those methods might cause human embryos to die — and even when the Obama administration itself believed that.
Lynch was almost certainly referring to the issues involved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and in litigation concerning the Little Sisters of the Poor. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that two employers could refrain from covering four of the twenty forms of contraception that the Obama administration had mandated. They could refrain from covering those four methods because of their belief that they posed an unacceptable risk of causing the death of human embryos. The four methods in question were two intrauterine devices and two forms of emergency contraception. (The objection was not, as Maddow had it, to “the birth-control pill.”)
The Obama administration argued that these methods could indeed work post-fertilization — that is, that they could prevent already-conceived human embryos from implanting in the womb — but that the employers were obliged to cover them anyway.
Opponents of the Obama policy generally, and the nuns specifically, did not base their opposition on the idea that “contraception is tantamount to abortion,” as Ruiz puts it. The employers in the Hobby Lobby case were willing to cover many methods of contraception. The nuns didn’t want to cover any, because they are against contraception even when it does not cause the death of human embryos. That’s why Ruiz’s link does not allege what she claims: that the Little Sisters of the Poor argued that contraception is tantamount to abortion.
There are two side issues that need not detain us here. The first is that some people deny that stopping implantation amounts to an abortion since there’s no pregnancy until after it has occurred. This is, of course, irrelevant to the moral argument against killing human embryos, and not a great fit for our normal use of language. (Couples who want children aren’t famous for saying that they’re “trying to implant.”) But that argument doesn’t rescue Maddow or Ruiz. Lynch wasn’t talking about “the Pill,” as Maddow puts it, and the nuns weren’t arguing that contraception and abortion are equivalent, as Ruiz does.
The second is that there is scientific dispute about how often several methods of contraception work post-fertilization. But that doesn’t make Lynch’s main point wrong (although it would have been more precise to broaden her wording from “drugs” to “drugs or devices”) or her detractors right, either. Ruiz’s reference to “scientists” goes to a New York Times story that notes that the copper IUD “does appear to be able to block implantation of a fertilized egg.”