Philip Ryken, the president of the white evangelical Wheaton College, said some jaw-droppingly stupid things when he decided to sue the government because the Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to cover the cost of health insurance.
Ryken’s really dumb statements about human reproduction went largely overlooked at the time. That was understandable, because they were sandwiched in amongst a host of his other statements that were so transparently disingenuous that his brazen dishonesty took all the attention away from his staggering ignorance.
Wheaton, after all, had previously offered health insurance coverage that covered the cost of contraception. They had done this willingly, and never regarded it as controversial or remarkable — which was correct, since it was not controversial or remarkable. Their health insurance covered the cost of health care, which is what it was supposed to do. But after the Affordable Care Act became law, Wheaton dropped that coverage and sued the government, claiming the school was being persecuted for its religious commitment to not having the kind of insurance it had, up until then, freely chosen to have.* And thus most observers noted that Philip Ryken was a ridiculous figure for litigiously pretending to be aggrieved over something that had never previously seemed to bother him at all.
Those observers weren’t wrong. That sanctimonious hypocrisy did make Ryken ridiculous. But so did everything he had to say about the actual facts of birth control — how it works, what its for, what it does — and about the basic facts of human anatomy and reproduction in general. Ryken repeatedly conflated birth control and abortion in a way that suggested that he believed that human personhood begins at ejaculation. Everything he said about the morning-after pill revealed that he didn’t understand how sex works.
So I had some good belly laughs at Ryken’s expense. Here was a highly educated grown man determinedly drawing attention to the fact that he had somehow gotten through all that schooling without ever learning the basic facts that would have allowed him to earn a passing grade in a junior-high sex-ed class. The fact that this man was also an academic — the head of a university that trained biology, nursing and pre-med students — only made it all the more absurd.
But while Philip Ryken’s bewilderment and ignorance is, indeed, astonishing and ridiculous, it’s not exceptional. It turns out there are a lot of other highly educated grown men who, like Ryken, haven’t got a clue about how sex works, or what birth control does, or what health insurance is and how that works.
And several of these other ridiculous, ignorant grown men are employed as justices of the Supreme Court. “SCOTUS Bros Clearly Don’t Understand How Women Get Contraceptives,” Tierney Sneed reports for TPM:
Judging by the questions from conservatives on the court — all men — they’re still not fully aware of how every day people — particularly women — receive health care in the United States, or how health insurance actually works. …
See also Sneed’s follow-up, “Sorry, SCOTUS, Your Ideas For Getting Women Contraceptives Won’t Work,” which features a long string of lawyers and insurance providers gaping in shock and horror at how little Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito seem to understand of health insurance, contraception coverage, insurance law, insurance economics or what’s involved in just going to your doctor.
As Kevin Drum put it: “Nobody expects judges to be subject matter experts on every case that comes before them. But this is kindergarten-level stuff. How can they possibly pretend to produce a reasoned opinion if they literally have no idea how health insurance under Obamacare works in the first place?”
That identifies the embarrassing intellectual and moral failing here. It’s not really so much the ignorance as the arrogance. You could live a full life without ever knowing any more than Philip Ryken does about how contraception and human reproduction actually work — but if you’re going to sue the government, claiming religious persecution, based on your understanding of those things then you become obliged to actually learn something about them. Similarly, most people don’t need to be experts in health insurance law or even to understand the basics of how health insurance works — but if you’re a Supreme Court justice hearing arguments involving that law, then you’re obliged to do your damned homework and correct for that ignorance.
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* Wheaton’s retroactive explanation for their previous contraception insurance is that this decade-long policy was “inadvertent.” The state of Illinois began requiring health insurance policies to cover all FDA-approved contraception back in 2003, but no one at the time thought to pretend this requirement was an assault on “religious liberty” because the president at the time was white and Republican. And since the morning-after pill is a form of FDA-approved contraception — and not an abortifacient because Sex Does Not Work Like That — nobody at Wheaton thought to object. As long as the president was white and Republican, nobody there felt compelled to pretend that the morning-after pill was an “abortifacient.”
That abrupt “deep religious conviction” was only adopted, Wheaton’s lawyer explained, after the Affordable Care Act “became part of the news.” That didn’t require anything to change for Wheaton — federal law was simply catching up to what state law had required for them for years already — but because the politics of this had changed, Wheaton’s claims of deep religious convictions had to change, and thus their understanding of How Sex Works had to change. They had to start claiming that the morning-after pill can and does cause abortions, even though it can’t and doesn’t. And they had to start pretending that this claiming makes it so.