Religious Freedom and Dangerous Ideas

Blood TransfusionDylan Matthews wrote an interesting interview with Douglas Laycock over at Vox on Monday, Why a Pro-Same-Sex-Marriage Law Professor Supports Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law. It’s generally interesting because Laycock has a different take on the law. But I’m not especially interested in that right now. More interesting is the case of Mary Stinemetz. She was a Jehovah’s Witness in Kansas who was on Medicaid. She needed a liver transplant, but she insisted upon a bloodless liver transplant, because the JWs do not believe in blood transfusions. But no one performed that procedure in Kansas and the Medicaid program wouldn’t pay for out of state treatments. The case took two years to make its way through court, and by the time Stinemetz won, her condition was so much worse than she could no longer get the procedure and later died.

This is a tragic story. I’m no expert on bloodless transfusions, but it seems like it is the way of the future. The costs are roughly the same — maybe even less. And there are fewer post-operative complications. This is assuming, of course, that the patient isn’t anemic. The problem is that bloodless transfusions are relatively new and so they aren’t nearly as widely performed. I remember getting a terribly invasive hernia surgery about 20 years ago simply because my insurance (Kaiser) didn’t cover the more recent laparoscopic surgery. So I have a hard time seeing this as especially the fault of Kansas Medicaid.

Why JWs Refuse Blood Transfusions

The whole thing got me wondering why it is that JWs don’t believe in blood transfusions. For one thing, it seems odd that they think mixing blood is wrong but mixing organs isn’t. Not surprisingly, the justification for this makes as much sense as the justification for Christian Scientists allowing bones to be set but not cancer to be treated. Basically: nowhere in the Bible does it say that you shouldn’t take anyone’s body parts. A loophole!

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses website, there are five Bible verses that instruct them not to use this 500 year old medical technique: Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10 and 17:14; Deuteronomy 12:23; and Acts 15:28-29. Note that only one of them is from the New Testament. I always love that. When it comes to the most ridiculous beliefs, going back 2,000 years isn’t enough; they have to go back another 500 years. But okay, let’s look at these verses.

Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:14, and Deuteronomy 12:23 are all pretty much the same thing. The New American Standard Bible translates Genesis 9:4 as, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Leviticus 17:14 is, “For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.'” And Deuteronomy 12:23 is, “Only be sure not to eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.” Clearly, these are about eating animal blood — not human blood.

Leviticus 17:10 cut off from everything else sounds like it might have something to do with human blood, “And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.” But the whole context of this section of Leviticus is about how God thinks that blood should be used for the purpose of sacrifices to him. From the context of Christians, this seems a particularly odd verse to focus on because Jesus was supposed to make such animal sacrifices unnecessary because Jesus’ blood cleansed the sins of all humanity. You know: Jesus as the “lamb of God”?

And that brings us to Acts 15:28-29. It says:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.

Again: animal blood. And it is about sacrifice. God could not have been referring to human blood, because the whole idea of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that God doesn’t want the Israelites to sacrifice humans. So none of these Bible verses make the case against the use of human blood — especially for the purpose of preserving human lives and allowing the followers of God to “do well.”

Over at Catholic Answers, Robert Brom noted a curious inconsistency as well:

The Witnesses must avoid other problematic passages that deal with God’s prohibition of eating blood because these passages include a prohibition against eating fat. Witnesses do not believe eating fat is wrong, and would see no problem at all with someone munching on fried pork rinds (ie, deep-fried pieces of pig fat) or sitting down to dinner and enjoying a nice fatty cut of prime rib. But their vehement opposition to eating blood, when contrasted with their approval of eating fat, presents a serious problem for them. Why? Because Leviticus, the book they go to in order to substantiate their prohibition of eating (and receiving transfusions of) blood, contains, in the same passages, prohibitions against eating fat.

I understand that one could make an argument that these verses mean that God doesn’t believe in blood transfusions. But you really have to work at it. That conclusion doesn’t fall out of a serious reading of the Bible. One of the reasons we know this is because only a tiny fraction of Christians believe this. And it doesn’t include all Jehovah’s Witnesses. The church existed (although not with its current name) for roughly a century before the issue even came up — despite the fact that blood transfusions were a common medical procedure during that time. It was only in the 1940s that people in the church started to push against the idea of blood transfusions. And it was only in 1961 that it became an official “disfellowshipping offense” to knowingly get a blood transfusion. But to show just how loony this all is, the church allowed people to get transfusions for their pets until 1964!

Dangerous Idiosyncrasies

I am all for government programs making accommodations for people’s idiosyncratic beliefs — as long as their requests are not too taxing on the resources available. But there is no reason to think that such idiosyncrasies are noble. Mary Stinemetz died primarily because she had an extremely dangerous idiosyncrasy. I wish that the government had dealt better with her. But she is no different than anyone else who does things that are not medically advised. She wasn’t a victim of religious persecution.

A Modest Healthcare Proposal

Dean BakerGeneric Sovaldi Costs Less than $1,000 in India. It would have been worth mentioning this fact in a Washington Post article on the cost of providing Medicare and Medicaid patients with Sovaldi. Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of Sovaldi, can get away with charging $84,000 for a treatment because the government will arrest anyone who tries to produce the drug without its permission.

Of course there is nothing to prevent people from going to India to get treatment there. It would be possible to pay $20,000 for the treatment and travel of a patient and family member, give them $10,000 for their troubles, and still come out $54,000 ahead. This would be a great win-win situation but apparently The Washington Post doesn’t want anyone to consider ways to save the government money at the expense of drug companies.

And yes, we do have to finance the research, but patent monopolies are a horribly inefficient mechanism for this purpose.

—Dean Baker
Generic Sovaldi Costs Less than $1,000 in India

Water, Global Warming, and Republican Villainy

Water WarBack in the middle of December, my little town here in California had an amazing storm. In a couple of days, we got roughly twice as much rain as we normally do for the whole month. And then January came: no rain the entire month. Normal rainfall for that month is six inches. In February, we got about half the normal five inches. And in March, when we normally get about three and a half inches, we again got no rain at all. None of this is surprising. It’s been going on for years. The idea of “normal rainfall” is now just a sick joke.

So when Jerry Brown stood in the snowless Sierra Nevada to announce a 25% decrease in water use, I was pleased. For years, I’ve been hammering the point that global warming is primarily dangerous because of what it would do to rainfall. And what it does is increase it. The problem is that it changes the rainfall patterns so that we get a net decrease in rainfall over land where we need it. A fellow graduate student when I was in school did a century long correlation between rainfall and temperature and he found that everywhere in the United States other than the northeast the correlation was negative. That is: as it gets hotter, it gets drier. And that’s especially true in places like California and Texas.

George WillI used to take a certain amount of solace from the fact that eventually those evil people who had been denying climate change would be forced to admit that, yes, in fact, they had been wrong. But I was wrong. If George Will and James Inhofe are denying it now, they will always deny it. Like most of the denial community, they are both old. By the time it gets really bad — when California is a ghost state — they will be dead. And I doubt it will matter to them that they left a far worse world for their kids. They left their kids in the hands of God, and God showed his usual level of care for human misery.

The great innovation of American business over the last forty years has been the three month time horizon. The question for the average CEO is not, “What is best for my business over the long term?” It is rather, “What is best for my next quarter bonus?” Given that we’ve allowed the United States to be taken over by the power elite of the business world, it is no surprise that the government now works the same way. What is the long term health of the people of the nation — much less the world — compared to next quarter’s bonus? We know the answer: not a damned thing.

James InhofeThe good news is that as the United States becomes a desiccated shell where nothing grows, Canada looks to become far more productive. If I were in charge of Canada, I would start a massive military buildup. Because you know, the United States isn’t going to sit idly by as its rich suffer, when it has spent all these years consuming 48% of the world’s military expenditures. The US will go to war with Canada under one pretext or another. But what does it matter to me? I’ll be dead. And why should I care about future generations when George Will, James Inhofe, and the whole of the Republican Party doesn’t care? Anyway: we can all drink “freedom.”

Beliefs vs Actions in Indiana

Gays Are SinnersI haven’t waded into the whole Indiana “religious liberty” law because I’m not clear just what it means. But one thing is clear enough: those who have pushed the law are doing it for one reason and one reason alone: they want to be free to discriminate. I’m with Douglas Laycock that there are actual issues of religious liberty that we should care about. Just the same, the issue is about a man not being able to wear a funny hat at his job rather than a business having to serve Satanist. And even more important, minimum wage workers aren’t safe from firing when they speak to the press.

On 26 March, Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. And less than a week later, we learned, Indiana Pizza Shop Is First to Publicly Deny Same-Sex Service. The claims made by the family that owns the shop are completely in keeping with what critics of the law have always maintained. The daughter of the owners, Crystal O’Connor, claims, “We’re not discriminating against anyone, that’s just our belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything.” The ignorance of this claim is breathtaking in how it conflates the act of discriminating with the belief that these people in same sex relationships will burn in hell.

Note that there really isn’t any difference between what O’Connor said and what segregationists said in the 1960s. Genesis 9:27 is very clear, “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.” African Americans are not supposed to mingle with European Americans, unless they are in suits serving hors d’oeuvres. But that isn’t discrimination. Just because a pizza shop didn’t want to serve black patrons, that’s not discrimination against anyone, that’s just their belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything. Right? Right?!

Well, I suppose that there is one difference: the object of oppression. Then it was African Americans and now it is LGBT Americans. The distinction that people like the O’Connors always make is that one can’t help being an African American but one chooses to be gay. In fact, Crystal’s father Kevin said, “That lifestyle is something they choose. I choose to be heterosexual. They choose to be homosexual. Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?” But that’s kind of the opposite of reality. Being “black” is actually just a social construct. Racism is what creates race, not the other way around. I have no idea why any given person is sexually attracted to whom they are.

But I do think it is odd that homophobes like Kevin O’Connor claim that homosexuality is a choice; are they really claiming that the only reason they don’t become gay is out of some sense of obligation to God’s word? Because I have news for them: I’m reliably heterosexual and it has nothing to do with any sense of obligation. But apparently, Kevin O’Connor would abandon his family and move to the Castro if it weren’t for that meddling God telling him not to. Latent homosexual much, Kevin? Regardless, selling pizza for a same sex wedding does not denote approval of same sex marriage; it denotes approval of the one true religion of America: money.

Here’s what I don’t understand. If the O’Connors can’t offend their god by catering a gay wedding, does that mean they can’t similarly offend their god by catering a Buddhist wedding? And what if out of Indianapolis came the Big Gay Church of the Totally Divine God, and its believers thought that God only believed in same sex marriage? Then suddenly we have sincerely held religious beliefs on both sides. Whose “religious freedom” gets trumped?

To me, there is nothing special about religious belief. Everyone has beliefs that they hold dear. The government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding which beliefs are valid and which aren’t. The government has generally had no problem saying to religious people with rites involving banned drugs, “You still aren’t allowed to break our laws on banned drugs.” I’m more than willing to discuss that issue. But I don’t think the “religious freedom” warriors are going to be keen on allowing the Lipan Apache to use peyote, and I know they won’t accept my Big Doped Church of the Totally Stoned God and its belief in compulsory opium use.

Ed Kilgore at Talking Points Memo wrote, Reminder: We’ve Used “Religious Liberty” for Discrimination Before. And I think he sums the whole thing up really well, “Conservative Christians have long been vulnerable to the charge that they offer religious cover for what may be simple resistance to social change…” That’s really what this is all about. I don’t know if Kevin O’Connor is a closeted gay man or not. But I do know that his bigotry toward the LGBT community is not theological in nature. It is a social belief, just like my rather opposite views on the matter.

Anniversary Post: Western Discovery of Florida

Welcome to Florida: the SLAVERY StateLast week for the anniversary post, I wrote about Massasoit’s Treaty. That was regarding the Wampanoag people and how they kept the Plymouth Colony alive. But over a hundred years earlier, on this day in 1513, Juan Ponce de León first made sight of what would become the political laughing stock of the United States: Florida!

Ponce was of noble birth. So after there were no more wars to fight at home, he signed up on Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. After about a decade of roaming around spreading disease and probably just outright murdering local peoples, he found himself in Hispaniola where he was put in charge of killing the local people who, for some reason, had a problem with being enslaved. As a result, Ponce got into the slave owner aristocrat business himself.

Anyway, enslaving populations to mine for gold can only keep a man’s attention for so long. So at the urging of the King of Spain, he went off looking for other lands and more people to “exploit.” And that’s how he discovered Florida. The native people they met there seemed to have quickly figured out that Ponce and company were not to be trusted. Hostilities erupted. After eight months of exploring, they returned Puerto Rico. Then Ponce went back to Spain and then back to Puerto Rico. But don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.

In 1521, Ponce put together an expedition of a couple hundred men to go back to Florida to colonize the place. The Calusa people attacked them, leading to Ponce being mortally wounded. The expedition retreated to Cuba, where Ponce died. Of course, it isn’t that happy a story, because eventually the Calusa were wiped out. I’m not saying that they wonderful people or anything. But at least they didn’t travel all over the world enslaving people.

Today we morn this important moment in the European slave trade.