Science

Religion ghosts in anti-vax wars: Why do some believers say this is a religious liberty fight?

Religion ghosts in anti-vax wars: Why do some believers say this is a religious liberty fight?

From the start, there have been religion-news hooks in the news coverage of the movement claiming that vaccines against some childhood diseases — measles and others — do more harm than good.

For starters, large communities of Orthodox Jews live in New York City, which all but guarantees coverage by newsrooms that help define what news matters and what news does not. In this case, I think that we are dealing with an important subject — one that editors should assign to teams that include religion-beat professionals.

Here at GetReligion, I have received emails from readers that, in so many words, say: This is what happens when religious traditionalists start shouting “religious liberty” and saying that God wants them to do something crazy.

Let me state right up front: There are church-state implications in some of these cases, with the state claiming the right to force parents to take actions that violate their religious convictions. Then again, people who follow debates about religious liberty know that clashes linked to health, prayer, healing and parental rights are tragically common. Click here to see some GetReligion posts about coverage of cases in which actions based on religious beliefs have been labeled a “clear threat to life and health.”

So let’s go back to the measles wars. Many of the mainstream news reports on this topic have covered many of the science and public health arguments. What’s missing, however, is (a) material about why some religious people believe what they believe and (b) whether decades of U.S. Supreme Court rulings apply to these cases.

Consider, for example, the long, detailed Washington Post story that just ran with this headline: “Meet the New York couple donating millions to the anti-vax movement.” Here’s the overture:

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events — including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.

Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.

Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”

Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?

If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).

Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

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Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

When Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, decided to tell the world that the National Enquirer was blackmailing him with nude photos, he turned to the blog platform Medium to tell the world about it.

Everyone, from Mashable to USA Today asked why someone worth $150 billion would self-publish not in the Washington Post, which he owns.

Instead, he turned to a humble (but neutral) place that’s accessible to everyone and anyone. I joined Medium a month ago — after perusing it for over a year — because the writing was about unusual topics with unique angles. There isn’t an army of editors going over the prose; what you see is raw copy straight from the writer’s laptop.

As it turns out, I’m not writing about Bezos, but I am writing about a recent piece on Medium about Mormon transhumanists, whatever they may be. Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling has written about them before, but some things bear repeating.

Mormons are the opposite of cafeteria Catholics. Instead of a pick-and-choose religion of faith du jour, they inhabit a closed system with a unique holy book and scriptures; certain beliefs that only they own and a place as the preeminent American-founded religion. Its legends and history are uniquely that of the Western hemisphere.

Before we start, please note the author isn’t just any old pajama-clad writer wannabe. Erin Clare Brown has worked for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. although her stint with the Times lasted only seven months. Whatever. (See here for a piece on Nordic Mormons she wrote for the WSJ three years ago). Her Linked-In account mentions she is a former Mormon missionary to the Russia, which explains her insight into these folks.

The piece starts with an anecdote by Michaelann Bradley, a young woman who was having a crisis of faith and had drifted from her Latter-day Saint roots.

In 2013, Bradley met her future husband, Don, at an academic scripture study group. He was a thoughtful historian 18 years her senior whose own faith in the LDS Church had been shaken years before. Many of their early dates were to “Mormon-adjacent gatherings,” Bradley said, so she hardly batted an eye when Don invited her to a meeting of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He billed it as a group of thoughtful folks tackling slightly different ideas about Mormonism. “I thought he meant ‘transcendentalist,’” Bradley told me. “I came prepared to talk about Thoreau.”

The meeting was as far from Walden as the moon or a terraformed Mars. Held in a local tech entrepreneur’s basement, it was a philosophical free-for-all of ideas that were closer to science fiction than scripture. The 10 other attendees — all male, all white, all in their 20s and 30s, and mostly with backgrounds in computer science or the tech world — batted around theories that reframed deeply held Mormon beliefs, like the notion that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become,” in terms of cryonics and the singularity. They quoted futurists in the same breath as Latter-day Saint Apostles and Carl Sagan. They asked whether we could become like God through technology — could we live forever now and not just after we die?

Taking certain Mormon beliefs to their logical conclusion, I’m guessing.

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

Another year, another mini-storm linked to media coverage of the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As always, the controversial issue is how to describe the size of the crowd. That’s been a hot-button topic inside the DC Beltway for several decades now (think Million Man March debates) Authorities at United States Park Police tend to turn and run (metaphorically speaking) when journalists approach to ask for crowd estimates.

March For Life organizers have long claimed — with some interesting photo evidence — that the size of this annual event tends to get played down in the media.

That is, if elite print and television newsrooms bother to cover the march at all. For more background, see this GetReligion post from 2018: “A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat.” And click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw focusing on media-bias issues linked to mainstream coverage of abortion.

So, what about 2019? Writing mid-afternoon, from here in New York City, let me note one bad snippet of coverage, care of USA Today, and then point to several interesting issues in a much more substantial story at The Washington Post.

I received a head’s up about the lede on an early version of the USA Today story about the march. Alas, no one took a screen shot and it appears that the wording has since change. However, several sources reported the same wording to me, with no chance for cooperation between these people. Here’s a comment from the Gateway Pundit blog:

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Wait. “More than a thousand?” During a bad year — extreme weather is rather common in mid-January Washington — the March for Life crowd tops 100,000. Last year, a digital-image analysis company put the crowd at 200,000-plus. During one Barack Obama-era march, activists sent me materials — comparing images of various DC crowds — that showed a march of 500,000-plus (some claims went as high as 650,000).

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Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

We already know that in 2019 the news biz will be as consumed by All Things Trump as during the prior three and a half years. The media must also monitor countless maneuvers by countless Democratic presidential hopefuls. And there will be those ongoing eruptions in global politics.

If any column inches and air time are left over for our beat, the temptation will be to do those “religion and” stories, oh you know like predictable Donald Trump accolades from the media’s favorite evangelicals. On the big 2019 theme of whether the President can win a second term, The Guy reminds pundits for the umpteenth time that white Catholics outside the  Bible Belt will decide that.  

Most important, The Guy advises editors that audiences will welcome a bit of a break from political news. How about covering the more religious aspects of the religion beat like these three major 2019 stories?  

First, the top story of 2018, as the Dec. 5 Guy Memo proposed, is reports that the “CRISR” technique in November successfully produced the first newborns with engineered genes that  will be inherited by future generations. Biologists “playing God” to create human “designer babies” is an ethical quagmire that demands 2019 folo-ups.

Then, two vital and nearly simultaneous church events, one dealing with moral performance and the other with moral doctrine, will reverberate throughout the year.

Ready to mark those calendars?

Feb. 21-24 — Pope Francis has summoned the 135 heads of national  bishops’ conferences and comparable officers for a Vatican summit to cope with the disgusting and ceaseless cascade of priests who sexually molested underaged boys and girls (and the bishops and cardinals who hid them). The stakes could not be higher for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

This brings fierce memories of Pope John Paul II’s 2002 Vatican abuse confab with U.S. Catholic leaders (which The Guy covered for The AP alongside Rome Bureau legend Victor Simpson). Shortly thereafter, several hundred reporters (including The Guy alongside award-winning AP virtuoso Rachel Zoll) swamped the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas that devised a cleanup plan.  

U.S. scandals then dominated the news. Since, it’s become obvious this is no “American crisis” but a worldwide one. The fact that victims’ suffering, scandals, cover-ups, malfeasance, investigations, lawsuits and bankruptcies persist 16 years later shows how intractable the moral rot has proven to be, with Cardinal Pell’s conviction the latest instance. 

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Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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