Just over a week into his term, President Joe Biden tweeted a simple promise. “Science will always guide my Administration,” he said. Just a few years ago, this statement would have aroused little comment; what administration, after all, would not be guided by science?
But by its executive orders and policy proposals, the Biden administration has caused considerable debate about what “science” really says, and how it will guide policy.
The position of the administration on several key questions suggests that U.S. bishops may increasingly find themselves defending their basic sense of scientific reality over the next four years, quite apart from any insistence on religious liberty protections.
The most obvious point of disagreement about science between Catholics and the administration is the insistence of pro-life advocates that it is empirically proven —a fact— that a unique genetic human life begins at conception.
But pro-choice advocates and the Biden administration have leaned heavily into an idea asserted by the Supreme Court in 1992 — that when human life begins is a question of philosophy, and open to free interpretation, rather than a matter of genetics, embryology, or biology.
Defenders of that view have proposed that good Catholics should respect the “religious freedom” of others, and refrain from seeking to impose their “religious beliefs” about abortion on wider society.
Both Catholics and non-Catholics might be surprised by the implication that asserting the grave immorality of the taking of an innocent human life is just a discreet quirk of sectarian dogma and not a universal moral truth.
Still, the real fight over science during the Biden administration seems unlikely to be about abortion — where the dogma of secular humanism considers the questions closed — but about gender.
Biden has pledged to supporting the Equality Act, which would make so-called gender identity a protected class, alongside race and sex, and would override existing religious freedom protections in federal law.
It is unclear if the Democrats can marshal sufficient votes in Congress to pass the bill, but even if they cannot, the science about who is and who is not a man, or a woman, is likely to dominate large sections of public debate — and not just over right of access to changing rooms and girls’ sports teams.
On Thursday, Twitter locked the account of Catholic World Report, a news service of Ignatius Press, for “hateful conduct.” CWR had republished a report by Catholic News Agency’s Matt Hadro, reporting on Biden’s nominee for HHS Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Rachel Levine.
CWR’s tweet quoted the report, making the observation that Levine is a “a biological man identifying as a transgender woman who has served as Pennsylvania’s health secretary since 2017.”
While many people would insist such an observation is a matter of empirically observable facts, the statement was classified as the promotion of “violence” or “harassment,” according to Twitter.
The situation points to a culture in which “science” is not a universally agreed upon mode of knowing externally demonstrable facts, but instead is a fluid reality, subject to the whims and dictates of political contingencies and social norms.
If, as the signs suggest they are, the Biden administration is committed to imposing culturally relative “scientific viewpoints” as a matter of policy, the consequences for Catholic doctors and nurses will be immediate and severe.
Hospitals and medical workers can, for the moment, recuse themselves from offering so-called gender reassignment procedures under existing federal conscience protections. Those protections largely exist at the good pleasure of the executive and can ebb and flow with presidential administrations.
If the Biden White House and HHS move to curtail them in the name of equality, some Catholic professionals will feel forced to fight back. But the fight will be on new terrain: rather than arguing on the grounds of religious freedom, as the U.S. bishops have tried to do in the past, the argument will be about what constitutes science in the first place.
Many Catholic doctors will likely insist that removal of healthy tissue or organs for a gender reassignment is not a medical treatment for gender dysphoria, but the infliction of physical harm that compounds a mental or neurological condition. But in doing so, they will have to make an argument from medicine, one not well suited to being couched as an assertion of religious dogma. They will, in short, be forced to fight “science” with science.
Previous efforts of the U.S. bishops to defend religious liberty have met with limited success. While the “Fortnight for Freedom” and similar initiatives pushed back against the HHS contraceptive mandate by asking to be left alone, the mandate is expected to be restored. Religious liberty, it seems, is not a winning cause, when pitted against cultural mores and the conclusions of “science.”
Whether positions argued from medical journals and anatomical charts will have more success than positions argued from the U.S. Constitution is a matter that judges will have to decide. But they will do so knowing that large swaths of corporate America, to say nothing of the White House, seem firmly to stand on the side of “science.”
Whatever that is.