Swallowing bitter pills

ru486newsprintThe FDA announced this week that another two women who had undergone abortions using pills had died. It is important for reporters to be very specific about what is and is not known about life and death issues such as these, and many reporters did a fine job. But there was one component that was sorely lacking. Let’s look at this sample coverage from Andrew Bridges with Associated Press:

Two more women have died after using the abortion pill RU-486, federal health regulators said Friday, in warning doctors to watch for a rare but deadly infection implicated in earlier deaths.

At least seven U.S. women have died after taking the pill, sold since 2000. The Food and Drug Administration cannot prove the drug was to blame in any of the cases.

This information is certainly helpful, but I was thinking back to a story I read in December that had shocked me. Not because the news was so surprising so much as bizarrely underreported. Here’s Salynn Boyles of WebMD in an article published by Fox:

The FDA received reports of 607 adverse events involving the abortion drug RU-486 over a four-year period, it was reported this week.

The adverse events included five reported deaths and 68 cases of severe bleeding that required transfusions.

Late last month, federal officials confirmed that five women who died of toxic shock syndrome within a week of taking the drug to induce abortions had the same rare bacterial infection.

Now, seven deaths provides some context, certainly. But 68 cases of severe bleeding that required blood transfusions? And 607 adverse events? Ay yay yay! Without debating the morality of abortion, why would reporters hide this? If you or a woman you knew were considering abortion — whether you agreed with her thinking or not — wouldn’t you want to share information like this with her? Why, in a story about the dangers of an abortion pill, would you not mention that you may be facing a blood transfusion if you take the pill? Yes, these numbers are comparatively small relative to the half-million women who have used pills to end pregnancies, but that doesn’t excuse hiding them.

Anyway, most outlets tried to push the story forward by looking at Planned Parenthood’s announcement that it was changing the way it administered the drug. Four of the seven women who died did so after receiving their abortion pills from Planned Parenthood. Apparently the FDA and Planned Parenthood have been battling for a while over the way Planned Parenthood directs patients to take the drug. The New York TimesGardiner Harris explains:

When Mifeprex was first approved by the agency in 2000, the standard regimen was to give the drug in a doctor’s office followed two days later by an oral dose of a different drug, misoprostol, also in a doctor’s office. Women expelled the fetus over the following days or weeks in a process that mimicked a miscarriage. The procedure must begin within 49 days of conception.

Soon after Mifeprex’s approval, most Planned Parenthood doctors switched to a different regimen, instructing women to insert misoprostol vaginally at home two to three days after taking Mifeprex. Studies of the new regimen showed that it was effective, and it allowed women to take lower doses of misoprostol. It also meant fewer office visits for Planned Parenthood.

But this regimen was not approved by the drug agency. It is not unusual for doctors to use drugs differently from how they are officially approved. But as reports of deaths among women undergoing the procedure trickled into the F.D.A., government officials issued stern warnings that doctors should stick to the approved regimen.

Until Friday, Planned Parenthood had rejected those warnings.

bitter pill 01I just want to point out this one device author Gardiner Harris used when writing about Planned Parenthood. He says that Planned Parenthood is using a regimen not approved by the FDA. Then he says that it’s not uncommon for doctors to deviate from approved uses. That is most certainly true. It’s also remarkably generous for him to include in a story about two women’s deaths. Especially since those deaths followed medical consultations with Planned Parenthood that included instructions contrary to what the FDA approved for an extremely controversial and dangerous drug. I think it’s good that he mentioned it, so I’m not criticizing him. But it’s good to think about whether all sources get this treatment.

To draw a comparison, let’s say that seven men from around the country all died after hunting trips. The only thing they had in common was that they used the same make and model of gun, which had just been put on the market. Would we expect most reporters to put the best construction on the gun manufacturer? I don’t know.

Reporters, and most of us are guilty of this whether we’re reporters or not, tend to put the best construction on those with whom we agree while attacking the motivations or practices of those with whom we disagree. If you want to write an attack piece, putting the worst construction on one group’s actions — and the best construction on their opponents — is the easiest way to do it. It’s also unethical and fails to provide a news service to readers. Generously explaining everybody’s side is more difficult but it ends up providing a better — albeit much more complex — story.

In the meantime, someone should probably dig a bit more into all these complications from abortion pills, not just the deaths.

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Kisses for the butcher?

sloba3 01As you can imagine, I froze when I read the following passage in the Los Angeles Times story from Belgrade about the tensions caused by memorial rites for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Reporter Alissa J. Rubin described this scene:

Milosevic’s coffin sat alone in a large, white-walled exhibition hall, where the museum lately has displayed avant-garde art. It rested on a table in the middle of the room, a large framed photograph of Milosevic leaning against it.

As people filed by, many crossed themselves and then kissed the photo’s frame as they would an icon in a Serbian Orthodox church. The mood was somber but resigned — in many ways Milosevic died here in Serbia in 2001, when the deposed leader vanished from public view.

This image would seem to blend well with the following statement in the new Reuters wire service report that is available all over the place on the World Wide Web:

The Serb Orthodox Church, which backed Milosevic’s hardline brand of nationalism, will hold a funeral ceremony in Pozarevac, something of a surprise for a man who was not thought to be religious.

This short piece offers no information to back up that stunning statement, which would certainly be a shock to the Orthodox that Milosevic’s Communist thugs jailed, assaulted or killed through the years. It would certainly be a shock to the bishops who led public efforts to overthrow his regime.

Watch the coverage this weekend for references to Patriarch Pavle, the key figure in Serbian Orthodoxy. Watch to see what he says and does.

Anything — repeat ANYTHING — involving religion in the Balkans is going to be emotional and complex beyond coverage in a 600-word newspaper report. What I fear today (yes, I am Orthodox) is that any Orthodox presence in events linked to this butcher’s passing will be, through television images, primarily, be used to suggest that the church supported this man.

There were bishops or priests who, as clergy often do, were involved in scenes in which they blessed troops going into combat. There are millions of people who were nationalists in Serbia who also are, to one degree or another, Orthodox. The church will probably grant the family a funeral. But I hope that, at some point, journalists can actually dig into the reality of all that Milosevic did to persecute religious believers and all that the religious leaders in the region — led by Orthodox bishops — did to oppose him and plead for peace.

If you want to read more about that, click here, here and finally here. Note, in particular, the efforts by leaders in Europe and America to ignore pleas for peace and nonviolence that came from a remarkable coalition of Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic leaders in, of all places, Kosovo.

In the end, so many of these stories return to the horror of Kosovo and how Milosevic manipulated Serbian emotions about that region, soaked in centuries of blood and sacred history. I put it this way in a 1999 column:

Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia’s array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.

Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: “I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

If you want to know more about that, click here and see some photographs from the past few years. Yes, the butcher of Belgrade knew where to light a match in order to cause an explosion.

Please help me look to see if any of this weekend’s reports try — for better or for worse — to cover these issues with any sensitivity or depth.

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“Sectarian” bloodshed, blah, blah, blah

helicopter 01I am sorry to sound like a broken record and, believe me, I realize that I could make the following comments about dozens of other MSM reports from Iraq day after day after day. But the Operation Swarmer story is one of today’s top stories in newspapers and broadcast media.

So here I go again. You can see, with merely one glance at the top of this Los Angeles Times report, that the “sectarian” nature of this conflict remains at the heart of the story.

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces began a major helicopter and ground attack Thursday on an insurgent stronghold near Samarra, the Sunni Arab dominated city where the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine last month set off waves of sectarian bloodshed across the country.

The assault was underway 80 miles north of Baghdad as the parliament elected three months ago held its inaugural session here amid extraordinary security and sharp exchanges that reflected Iraq’s deepening divisions.

And on and on and on, from “Sunni-led insurgency” to “full-scale sectarian conflict” to the dizzying reference to the urgency of bringing “minority Sunni representatives into a broad coalition government along with majority Shiites, ethnic Kurds and secular-minded parties.”

There are religious elements to all of that. But what do the words mean? Yes, I know that, to some degree, the leaders of these factions want political power and oil money. I know all of that. I know that some of the divisions are tribal (at least, I think I know that). But it still seems to me that American newspaper readers, in an era in which we are trying to understand why some (repeat some) Islam leaders want to destroy the West or absorb it, would like to know why so many Arab Muslims want to kill each other, as well. We are being told why they hate us and why they hate Israel. Could someone please explain to us, in language we can understand, why they also want to kill each other?

This is an important question and it leads to others. Is political unity impossible if the ultimate goal is a theocracy built on doctrinal unity? Is a secular compromise possible if Allah casts a final “no” vote?

Adnan Pachachi, at 83 the oldest member of parliament, underscored the urgency of the task in unusually blunt remarks to his colleagues after he had been appointed temporary speaker.

“The country is going through dangerous times … and the perils come from every direction,” he said during the nationally televised session. “We have to prove to the world that there will not be civil war among our people. The danger is still there, and our enemies are ready for us.

“We’re still at the beginning of the road to democracy,” he added, “and we’re stumbling.”

OK, is this Pachachi fellow Sunni, Shiite, Christian or secular? That matters, right?

Yes, it does matter.

Tension between the Shiites, who dominate the interim government, and other blocs surfaced in parliament when Pachachi, a secular Sunni, said in his speech that Cabinet ministers should not be chosen on a sectarian basis.

He was cut off by Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Shiite bloc’s largest party. Sitting in the front row in black robes and a turban, he said: “This is the first session. We shouldn’t go into all these details.”

So let’s start with a basic question: Why is the Sunni sect symbolized by the color green and the Shiites by the color black?

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Suing over a book’s architecture

da vinci codeApparently Dan Brown’s use of “historical conjecture” in his wildly popular Da Vinci Code has landed him in the British legal system on a charge of plagiarism. The media are fascinated by the revelations on how Brown wrote his book, his wife’s involvement in forming the more controversial themes of the book and how strange it is to see the laid-back Brown among a bunch of powdered wigs in a British courtroom.

Here’s the New York Times version of what’s happening:

Mr. Brown acknowledges that he used “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (published in the United States as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”), as a source for his book, but contends it was just one of many books and documents he and his wife consulted. Indeed, his protagonist specifically refers to the book in a pivotal scene in “The Da Vinci Code” — a homage, Mr. Brown says; the name of one of Mr. Brown’s characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, was devised as an in-joke reference to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” using the surname of one author and an anagram of the surname of another.

Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh’s case will rise or fall on how much they can prove that Mr. Brown relied on their book in writing his.

So far, their lawyers appear to have only scratched the surface of the issue, although they have in their possession what Mr. Brown says are all his notes, outlines and research materials.

In his statement to the court, he said that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” was full of material that did not appear in “The Da Vinci Code,” and vice versa.

“I would like to restate that I remain astounded by the claimants’ choice to file this plagiarism suit,” he said. “For them to suggest, as I understand they do, that I have ‘hijacked and exploited’ their work is simply untrue.”

For the fans of the books it is great drama, and the revelations on the formation of the book are somewhat interesting, but the real significance of this story is on how the matter could end the genre of historical fiction.

dan brownNow I’m not talking about the basic histories we’re all familiar with. Common-knowledge subjects like the American Civil War, Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the journey of Marco Polo will remain up for grabs. But the more speculative aspects that have been recently explored by researchers and are not established in the history books will be out the window, as explained by author Sarah Dunant, a guest on National Public Ratio’s On the Media last week:

I think the problem about religion is it is based somewhere on a series of facts that nobody quite knows. The notion that Christ may have been married, the notion that Mary Magdalene may have been more than just a poor supplicant, are notions that have been around for a very long time. And if a writer, particularly a thriller writer, a writer where plot is really important, where the uncovering of secrets is really important … as you know, I began life as a thriller writer, and I try and weave in thriller plots to history because the better the book, the more you’re drawing on stuff that is actually fact. Thriller writers do lots of research. The big question here is whether or not an idea, a bigger idea as opposed to a series of facts and opinions, can be copyrighted. And that is a huge question, which I think, even when they have ordered one way or the other in the Dan Brown case, in a sense, we’ll still be asking. …

For a very long time, any kind of novel about history, particularly deliberately historical novels, were more often about kind of kings and queens and big battles and the big accepted history. But the kind of history that is being done by all manner of scholars over the last 40 or 50 years, from women’s research people to people who are interested in gay culture to people who are interested in the hidden bits of the sort of Christian mythology, their job has been to get under the surface, to get to those other nine-tenths of the iceberg. It’s all, in a sense, new and slightly hidden history. So the historical novelist, particularly if you want to write a good thrilling historical novel, which I certainly set out to do, has to use all kinds of sources which, in a sense, are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m a bit disappointed that I have not seen more on this from mainstream publications. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but most of what I’ve read fails to highlight the very essence for which Brown is being sued. Perhaps because the ideas are so controversial, reporters avoid them with the subtle fear that they will make a goof? Or maybe it’s because those suing Brown don’t stand much of a chance to win even in Great Britain, not to mention the United States?

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What is a sanctuary?

wrecking ballLast year the Supreme Court issued a wildly unpopular decision that enabled governments to seize property for no other reason than economic development. A recent New York Times article says that almost every state legislature in the country is advancing bills or constitutional amendments to limit the spread of this ruling. Despite the tenuous legal state that the ruling (Kelo v. New London) is in, a Long Beach, Calif., government is using it to replace a church with an apartment complex. Sigh.

The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted 6-0 March 13 to condemn the Filipino Baptist Fellowship’s church building, ostensibly because it does not produce enough economic benefit for the city.

Because the Filipino Baptist Fellowship is just one of eight churches that governments are currently using eminent domain against, I wish that reporters were all over this. Unfortunately, it seems that print coverage has been more or less limited. Let’s look at how the Associated Press characterized the issue which, I’ll note, was very similar to the way the Long Beach Press-Telegram put it:

“We are a church. We are helpless. We have no place to go,” church pastor Roem Agustin said.

But redevelopment agency bureau manager Barbara Kaiser said the church was offered 13 alternative sites and the agency offered to pay for moving costs.

Well, if you’re like me and think that private property owners should have the right to keep their land no matter how much the government wants it for a baseball stadium or condominium developments, it doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. And if you’re like me and think this goes double for houses of worship, it really doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. But most people would see this and think the church was being unreasonable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any other information readers should have? Baptist Press, which has covered this story well, spoke with the church’s attorney, John Eastman:

“Well, let me tell you about the properties they’ve offered. Most of them were vacant lots,” he told BP. “It’s a little hard to hold a church service in a vacant lot. Several of them were leases, not buildings to own. [The church members] own this one, and they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.

“So you take all those off the table. Almost all of the others were in other parts of the redevelopment area, where they could be forced to move out a couple of years down the road when the city gets around to developing that block,” he added. . . .

Some of the alternative sites the city offered the church included a bar and two gas stations. Most of the properties had no parking or less parking than the church has at its current location, and there was no guarantee that the city would give the church a conditional use permit without ensuring the parking was up to code, Eastman said.

“None of these were suitable alternatives because they wouldn’t have been able to have their church,” he said. “Giving you 13 different addresses doesn’t mean they’ve given you 13 different suitable alternatives.”

This level of explanation should be available in the wire or local news reports. But, more importantly, this broader story should be getting more coverage.

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“Mr. Cruise, come out of the closet”

chefThe voice of South Park‘s Chef, soul singer Isaac Hayes, has quit the show that centers on four foul-mouthed fourth graders. The reason: South Park inappropriately ridicules religion. Say what? Since when?!?

Here is a thorough account of the story from Reuters (my past posts dealing with Scientology can be found here and here):

Soul singer Isaac Hayes said on Monday he was quitting his job as the voice of the lusty character “Chef” on the satiric cable TV cartoon “South Park,” citing the show’s “inappropriate ridicule” of religion.

But series co-creator Matt Stone said the veteran recording artist was upset the show had recently lampooned the Church of Scientology, of which Hayes is an outspoken follower.

“In ten years and over 150 episodes of ‘South Park,’ Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslim[s], Mormons or Jews,” Stone said in a statement issued by the Comedy Central network. “He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show.”

He added: “Of course we will release Isaac from his contract, and we wish him well.”

In a statement explaining his departure from the show, Hayes, 63, did not mention last fall’s episode poking fun at Scientology and some of its celebrity adherents, including actor Tom Cruise.

south park three boysAs blogger Andrew Sullivan joked, the episode “Red-Hot Catholic Love” wasn’t enough to drive Hayes from the show. Nor was the show that started it all, “The Spirit of Christmas (Jesus vs. Santa).”

The Scientology episode, which is available at South Park‘s homepage (for the time being) and through this site, is just as much about making fun of the alleged closeted homosexuality of actor Tom Cruise (who is also a Scientologist), but the plot certainly centers on Stan and his rather unusual experience in the group.

I’m glad Reuters and others have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Hayes’ claiming that his departure was solely based on the show’s clear hostility toward religion. They obviously were helped out a bit by Stone’s statement, and it will be interesting to see if this story picks up any momentum. No lawsuit has been filed against the show that I know of, largely thanks to American judicial precedent that allows liberal use of satire, especially toward those who are in the public limelight.

While I certainly do not think it’s nice to mock another person’s religion, or life philosophy as Scientologists put it, and Scientology is indeed viciously mocked by South Park in this episode, it is certainly within the realm of comedy. As long as the comedy is actually funny, and in this case it’s hilarious, I’m OK with it.

One item that might be worth exploring in follow-up reports is the actual status of Scientology as a religion. Yes, Scientology has established tax-exempt status and walks like a religion, but it does not always talk like a religion. Scientologists have left comments on this blog that “many people practice Scientology and their chosen faith.” This includes Hayes, who says he is a Baptist by birth and that he considers Scientology an “applied religious philosophy.”

Perhaps the Internal Revenue Service needs to take another look at the group’s status as a religion?

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Should we ban military chaplains?

48502 mr chaplain CU031216 2762 stI want to revisit the always hot topic of free speech and military chaplains, because of a very interesting op-ed column in the Washington Post. We rarely deal with editorial page offerings here at GetReligion, but this piece anticipates where this hot story may be headed.

The column was called “What the Military Shouldn’t Preach” and it was written by Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is boldly asking a simple question: Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained?

According to Poppleton, it is now time to take a radical step. He believes the military services should create secular counseling services, thus removing the government from the religion business:

We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.

The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.

In other words, replace chaplains with counselors and then allow civilian clergy in a wide variety of faiths — from Baptist to Buddhist, from Catholic to Muslim — to come in and lead worship services and other activitities in which they would not be expected to compromise on issues of doctrine.

Instead of a lowest-common-denominator theism for military life, you would have a secular approach to military life backed up with a free-market system for worship.

This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all (if local civilian clergy cannot get there on their own as Poppleton proposes)?

These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended? Now flip that coin over. Can the military honestly expect clergy in traditional faiths to compromise on their own beliefs, in order to serve as shepherds for soldiers from a wide variety of flocks?

As I keep saying, this story is not going to go away.

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Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

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