The Evangelical War on Contraception

If you haven’t heard, evangelicals are currently campaigning against contraception.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, I can’t blame you. After all, it was only two years ago when a evangelical theologian seriously proposed that churches should give out contraception to single Christians because that supposedly reduces abortions and evangelical attendees responded with a collective, “Um, sure, why not?!”

But since then, we’ve all followed along as Hobby Lobby and others have sued the government for imposing requirements that they include certain drugs in their insurance plans that Hobby Lobby contests have an abortifacient effect. The case is fundamentally about the religious liberties of corporations and their owners, but I suppose we can all be forgiven for overlooking that since the trouble is the “HHS contraception mandate.” Look, the name! They’re objecting! War on contraception! See how easy this whole business is?

Now, I have to confess to feeling the tiniest bit of cheer at the news that evangelicals are thinking hard about contraception, even if the evidence for it is a tad thin. If all of these confusions prompt a more serious and sober evaluation of its use, then so much the better.

But such evaluation needs to happen on different, more properly moral terms than the pragmatic and consequentialist modes of reasoning that are endemic within the evangelical world. We ought to think about what contraception is and what it does within a marriage, what sort of mindset and form of life it engenders, what type of commitments are embedded within the practice and within the communities where it prevails.

Even if particular forms of contraception are licit, they ought not be adopted unreflectively. These matters are far too important for assumptions, yet how many evangelical engagement counseling programs involve careful, deliberate consideration of the questions involved? “The church never talks about [x]” is a sure sign that the church talks plenty about [x] and whoever utters that just isn’t paying attention. But for many evangelicals contraception remains the unquestioned option—and in some cases, unquestionable—option. I’ve heard prominent evangelicals start their defenses of public funding for contraception by saying, “Well, I’m an evangelical, so that means I’m okay with some forms of contraception.” Well, then. That settles it.

Now, among the internet’s response to Hobby Lobby it’s been popular for young evangelicals to run about saying that contraception reduces abortion, so obviously we ought to support more access to it as a social policy. Rachel Held Evans is the latest exponent of the view, but Jonathan Merritt and I have been around it on Twitter as well. The argument sounds awfully nice to the happy, half-informed, pragmatically minded, pro-life evangelical’s ears: we’re against abortion, contraception means less of it, let’s all go have cake.

But there are troubles with this sort of reasoning. (I mean, you know what else would reduce abortions? Killing people. It’s foolproof. ) The study that has become the go-to source on the question simply isn’t as watertight as it seems in the headlines and news reports. And Michael New’s commentary doesn’t even mention that at least some of the IUDs that were handed out have an abortificient effect. Even Planned Parenthood acknowledges that IUDs sometimes have a post-conception effect: that is, if life begins at conception then they are abortifacients.

But it’s easier to find a study that proves the point and call it a day, so let’s call to the stand one of our own. Now, if you think that increased access to contraception would reduce abortions, then it would make sense that better access to emergency contraception would do the same. Only it turns out that’s (maybe) not the case. While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same in the places where access laws were passed.* Why? Well, the authors muse, “[emergency contraception] may induce a behavioral response that leads to more sexual encounters, and hence, more pregnancies.” Given the rates of birth and the size of the population, it doesn’t take that many more people statistically to have sex more often to keep the pregnancy rate the same. (As to what this means for America’s falling birth rate, well, draw your own conclusions.)

But here’s the real kicker: emergency contraception dropped in price and became easier to access when the pharmacy replaced emergency rooms as the point of sale, but reports of sexual assaults decreased as well. The authors are appropriately cautious, saying that the evidence is “suggestive.” But it makes some intuitive sense: nurses and doctors get trained to ask about such things, while pharmacists do not. The authors suggest that to “mitigate this impact, new policies may be necessary to encourage crime reporting by sexual assault victims that visit pharmacies.”

'Hobby Lobby in Macedonia, Ohio' photo (c) 2013, Nicholas Eckhart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you think they’re protesting contraception, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, is it fair to extrapolate beyond the fact that emergency contraception doesn’t decrease abortions to other forms of contraception? It’s not a straightforward deduction, by any means. But then that’s just my point: the soft consequentialism that stands beneath the social sciences is far less useful for thinking through these things than it seems, and far more potent in the hands of news commentators and writers than it should be. At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history. But the casual observers of culture that make up the commentariat don’t have the discipline even to wait for the academic cycle of evaluation to do its work. What’s that? There’s a study that says the hook up culture doesn’t exist. Now we know!

I could go on, but at this point I feel obliged to simply turn the microphone over to Helen Rittlemeyer, whose excellent essay on the social sciences is germane to all this. A teaser, so you can hear what good prose sounds like, but go read the whole thing:

Lesser pundits and journalists parrot academic studies as if they were unimpeachable, even when the resulting headlines are as absurd as “Racial Inequal­ity Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion,” “Feminists Have Better Sex Lives,” or (my favorite, courtesy of Yahoo! News) “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds.” Even Ross Douthat, generally reputed as a moralist, can be caught buttressing with social­ scientific evidence a claim as uncontroversial as that serious downsides attend being a pothead: Excessive marijuana use, he reports, “can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility.” The im­pression left by these sorts of citations is not rigor so much as lack of confidence in one’s assertions, and persuasion, like seduction and stand­up comedy, is 90 percent confidence.

*Author’s note:  Thanks to a commenter, I’ve edited this sentence for clarity. 

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  • Robbie Vedrenne

    The broad embrace of contraceptive birth control by evangelicals is relatively new and theologically problematic. The problem with wholesale acceptance of contraception replaces a Biblical ethos with a very modern one that reflects a humanistic ethic, not a theistic one. If one were to build a philosophy around marriage and family based upon Judaism and Christianity, there would be a different view of when and how to avail oneself of contraception. This is not a simplistic topic of what is sinful or not. It is a complex understanding of what marriage and family is in relationship to the original commission to tend to the garden, to toil in creation as we are commanded to do. The limiting of family size is not something that prima facie puts you afoul of Scripture, but why you do certainly might.

    • BryanJensen

      “Humanistic” isn’t de facto opposed to a theistic worldview. Dig deeper. Maybe “individual-arbitrated moral view”?

      • Robbie Vedrenne

        Only distinction was one of primary focus. A theistic and humanistic worldview may have overlap, and I believe they do. Not making the case they are mutually exclusive just that their foundations are not the same.

        • BryanJensen

          Tell that to Plutarch or Kierkegaard, to name just a couple of humanists who considered theistic values to necessitate humanism, including as an existential response.

          • Robbie Vedrenne

            Not interested in the philosophy lesson. Is there something that I wrote that you believe is false or creates ambiguity? Getting into a discussion of christian existentialism is hardly a good use of time. If not, it seems like you are just a contrarian.

          • BryanJensen

            I’m getting at more than mere philosophy or history, but I think it is essential to your persuasiveness: You are contrasting “theism” or “biblical” against “modern” or “humanist” — which I think speaks more to culture war bifurcations than the issue at hand: the deeper reflective moralistic insight you seem to be getting at not merely the usual dismissive “sinfulness”.

            Now granted not all evangelical supporters of contraception do so with deep reflection, but some do, and assuming default positions with terms like “theistic” or “biblical” makes you appear traditional for the sake of traditionalism, I think, not astute.

          • Robbie Vedrenne

            Fair enough.

          • anoynamouse

            Bingo!

  • Steve Shay

    The author writes, “While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same.” This is inaccurate. Abortion rates are steadily declining in America. While this author seems adept at constructing lengthy, erudite sentences that are hard to follow, one thing is clear. His writings are not accurate: http://www.abort73.com/abortion_facts/us_abortion_statistics/

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      “The author” thanks you much for the comment, and for allowing me to clarify. In fact, they measured it locally based on where access laws were passed. So national statistics are, in fact, irrelevant.

      But your commentary about my sentences is unquestionable!

      • Steve Shay

        Thanks Matthew. I guess I could be snarky and say that, to the unborn babies, national statistics are relevant, as their chances to survive increase, but I won’t go there, as that is a bit off-topic.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          You’d also have to make an argument that contraception is casually related to it.

          Pointing to good consequences in response to a post critiquing consequentialist lines of reasoning…is an odd response.

          • Steve Shay

            You trip over your own feet with your run on sentences. How about putting it a different way?

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Okay. I put my basic reply this way: http://mereorthodoxy.com/meaning-of-pro-life/

            Have fun!

          • Steve Shay

            Oye vey! THIS is putting it bluntly? “To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.” My head is spinning.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Actually, that’s a pretty clear sentence. I’m happy with that one! Thanks, Steve! : )

          • Steve Shay

            Well, you went to Oxford and I didn’t. I yield to you. :-)

  • Maria B

    This is brilliant. Promoting contraception on the basis that it prevents more abortions is curious on two levels. First because some people who oppose contraception use do so on the basis that it IS an abortion (I don’t myself subscribe to that view for all contraceptives but some do) and second because that’s akin to saying “all anti-gun activists should agree to putting all students preemptively in jail for their entire pubescence because it will cut down on school shootings.”

    The worst part about this debate (and most others, I suppose) is that people think that if they can write well (or think they write well, at least) then whatever they write is right.

    • BryanJensen

      Your argument doesn’t follow, if it is prima facie directed toward socially pragmatist evangelicals.

    • Steve Shay

      That’s write Maria!

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Referencing social science studies is the prooftexting of contemporary aspirants to the clerisy.

  • Jill Stuart Shepherd

    You know what else is abortifacient? Wanted pregnancies! These things happen under the most “morally sanctioned” of circumstances. If abortion is really such an abhorrent risk, we should discourage pregnancy altogether.

    • Dennis Erford

      Jill, could you explain how wanted pregnancies are abortifacient? I ask because abortions are deliberate attempts to terminate a pregnancy while wanted pregnancies have the very opposite outcome in mind.

      • Jill Stuart Shepherd

        When one gets pregnant, there is a risk that pregnancy will spontaneously abort. You cite IUD use as ethically questionable because it can essentially interfere with the development of a fertilized egg. Pregnancy carries an inherent risk of an UNINTENDED abortion just as IUD use may result in the same UNINTENDED abortion.

        • Dennis Erford

          But isn’t there a difference between having an inherent risk and intentionally doing something that substantially increases that risk? For example, we all have the inherent risk of getting lung cancer, but what we discourage is the smoking of cigarettes, not the use of our lungs.

          Also, isn’t it important to note that a pregnancy is necessary to have the positive result of a new child while an IUD does not contribute to that result in any such way?

          • Dennis Erford

            Also, you may have mixed me up with someone because I did not cite anything about IUDs :-)

          • Jill Stuart Shepherd

            Okay, I have to make this my last comment because my kids will walk thru the door any minute now. I don’t see as much of a dichotomy. Germaine to the discussion of the ethics of contraception is the possibility of unintended abortion which can be the unintended outcome of IUDS, birth control pills or intentional pregnancy. We want to separate them logically but they’re inseparable in my mind.

          • Dennis Erford

            I understand if you do not have time to respond, but I would just like to throw this out there in case it helps you separate the two in your mind. While driving with my 2-year-old daughter in the car, there is the possibility of getting into an accident and her dying. Since this is a possibility whether I put her in a car seat or not, does it make a difference if I do so? After all, in both cases her death would be unintended, so if I cannot separate the difference in my mind, I cannot say that putting her in the car seat is qualitatively different than not.

          • Steve Shay

            Dennis, so in your (morose) analogy, you are saying the car seat is analogous to birth control, right?

          • Dennis Erford

            Steve, I think analogy implies more parallels than I was going for. I was trying to illustrate that even though the same unintended result may occur regardless of one’s decision, it does not follow that the decision does not make a difference. If I was pressed to diagram the parallels, though, I would equate using birth control to not putting my daughter in the car seat.

            Perhaps a better scenario would have been to say that the fact I may unintentionally get into an accident regardless of whether I choose to drive safely or erratically does not remove the moral component or impact from my choice. In other words, simply because you may arrive at the same unintended end does not mean all paths to getting there are equivalent.

          • Steve Shay

            Thanks for clarifying your position to me, Dennis. :-)

          • Dennis Erford

            No problem. Have a great day! :-)

          • Jill Stuart Shepherd

            Let me answer your question with a question, if I may. Are you saying that anortion is justifiable if it happens in pursuit of a desirable outcome?

          • Dennis Erford

            It depends on how you are using ‘abortion’ because you seem to be using it in two different ways. A deliberate abortion is never justifiable because it is an intended attack against an innocent person. An unintended abortion (what is more commonly referred to as a miscarriage) is not an intentional act against anyone.

            I hope that gave you enough feedback to answer my questions :-)

        • ElrondPA

          This is extremely deceptive. One who intends a pregnancy wishes to nurture it to successful birth. One who uses an IUD intends to prevent birth by any means possible; it is known that at least some IUDs, if they don’t prevent fertilization, will prevent implantation, and that is advancing their purpose, rather than thwarting it. Given that biologically, life begins at conception, using an IUD means that you are potentially actively participating in interrupting and ending that life, and that is clearly a situation of moral responsibility. A spontaneous miscarriage is no more caused by pregnancy than a cold is caused by breathing.

    • Steve Marsh

      An abortifacient is something that causes an abortion; a pregnancy can end via natural or elective abortion or by a successful birth, but to imply that a pregnancy is the cause of its own termination is strange. I don’t believe you are using the word properly.

      Yes, pregnancies can end via natural abortion; there is no sin involved there – just as a person dying of natural causes is not the same as a person being murdered by another. We don’t discourage people from living just because they can (and will) die, do we?

  • Dennis Erford

    I am the host of a radio show and hope to have an upcoming segment on evangelical views toward contraception to compare to the Catholic view. Could some of you please tell me reasons you believe contraception is not sinful, or under what circumstances you would find it sinful (outside of being an abortifacient)?

    For full disclosure, I am Catholic and the show is about sexuality, marriage, love, etc from a Catholic viewpoint, but I want to give a fair representation of different views among Christians. I may also “challenge” some of what you say, but the main focus of doing so would be to get a better understanding of your beliefs regarding contraception. Thanks in advance for any feedback :-)

    • Robbie Vedrenne

      See my post below. I am a protestant who believes that contraception use amongst evangelical, Bible believing believers is done so usually with no consideration to Scripture. To consider it sinful is a category mistake. There is no Biblical command to not use contraception, there is however an abundant amount of resources that inform the reader of God’s view of family, children, life, death, etc.

      • Dennis Erford

        Thank you for your comment :-) Do you believe something must be explicitly condemned in the Bible in order to be sinful, or can certain actions that violate generally given Biblical ideas be sinful as well? (Note: What I write next is meant only to better understand your thinking, not to be combative) For example, having your wife take “the Pill,” a Class 1 carcinogen, to accomplish something that could instead be done through self-control and the natural cycles of a woman’s body seems to be unloving to your wife and disrespectful to how God created the woman’s body to alternately be fertile and infertile.

        • Robbie Vedrenne

          I believe that sin occurs long before behavior takes place (See Matthew 5:21-42). To directly answer your question, no. God is a judger of the heart and examines our conscience and character knowing that our actions are manifestations of what has already has taken root. My wife and I have been married for 23 years and have five children and have never used artificial birth control so my position on the pill, the condom, the IUD, etc. is probably closer to yours than my fellow protestants. The context of your question though will fall on deaf ears to most protestants. It would be better to appeal to what Scripture does say, not what it does not. Most devout protestant believers have never been challenged to think about it. Scripture as well as church history has a lot to say about life, children and the purpose of family, heritage, etc. To get into a chemical argument about a pharmaceutical opens up a pandora’s box unrelated to the topic.

          • Dennis Erford

            While I disagree that the chemical argument is unrelated to the topic, I agree that it would fall on deaf ears, which is why I do not use it to speak about the sinfulness of such an action, but to pose the question as to what the most loving action is.

            If you would like me to appeal to Scripture, could you tell me what your response to two questions would be? I have recently read about them but have not as of yet investigated them thoroughly, so I’m asking just to see your response, not because I know the arguments to be true.

            The first is the story of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10), who spilled his seed on the ground instead of impregnating his deceased brother’s widow. According to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, the penalty is for the slighted widow to publicly humiliate the offender, but God goes far beyond this and strikes Onan dead, seemingly saying something worse than not fulfilling his brotherly duty was committed. In commenting on the story of Onan, both Luther and Calvin also point to the evil of spilling the seed upon the ground.

            The second is when the book of Revelation condemns sorcerers and the potions they make. Some, looking at the context, see it as referring to medicines created to prevent or terminate pregnancies. As I said, I have not researched it enough to see how valid that interpretation is, but it comes from sources I trust.

            I am afraid I have to log off after this message, so I will look for your response tomorrow (if you have time). Thanks for answering my questions!

    • Jill Stuart Shepherd

      Ironically, it was the 9 pregnancies in 5 years (resulting in my treasured 4 kids) that changed me from ardently and classically “pro-life” to much more “pro-choice.” The experience made me decide that a) I didn’t actually believe I’d lost 5 “babies” whom I’d “meet in heaven” (as some goofy Evangelicals tried to convince me as a bizzarre attempt at being comforting) b) that pregnancy is incredibly hard on women’s bodies, marriages and families, d) that children who grow up neglected and unloved are not being given “life” and d) that the beliefs about contraception and abortion are incredibly individual.

      As per point D, I know many women who did feel bonded to pregnancies that only lasted a week or two. We experienced the same circumstances in radically different but equally real ways.

      I personally would never get an abortion, but I know thoughtful, caring, responsible women who have and don’t regret it. Who am I to judge? Rather, I love them and wish they’d never had to make such a difficult, painful choice.

      At the end of the day, I think our energies are better spent embracing women, the modern-day challenges of human sexuality, and the burden of unintended pregnancies. That, I believe, is what Christ would have us do.

      • Akos Tarkanyi

        You believe it or not those beings you lost were human children. Yes, without a developed intelligence (just like newborn babies do not have a developed intelligence, either). That you perhaos did not feel being bonded to them emotionally that is an individual thing. One might not feel sadness when a far away relative dies. But the dead pesrson still remains, objectively, a relative. It is a different story when you know that you are fesponsible for the deth of the far away relative than when you know that you are not. And it is different when one does not feel sadness after a spontaneous abortion and when one does not feel sadness after an artifical one. In the second case the moral responsiblity

    • Bethany Persons

      I know I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I’d like to take a stab at answering your questions.

      I’d like to separate the evangelical view on non-abortifacient contraception into two parts – the principle and the practice.

      For myself and most of the evangelicals I know, as long as the method does not cause an abortion, even pre-implantation, we consider ourselves free to use it. Beyond that, I don’t see a lot of spiritual significance between the pill and faithfully practiced natural family planning. In both cases, the couple is trying to have some control over the timing and number of children they bear. I have occasionally encountered the idea that using contraceptives shows a lack of faith. For a number of reasons, I find this idea laughable at best and insulting at worst, unless a person really feels called to avoid any kind of family planning method (which is still not a universal application). And besides, this idea does not exclude natural family planning either.

      As for the practice of contraception vs. NFP, I would first like to address a personal exception ti NFP. Basically, my cycle has never been regular. And by that I don’t mean sometimes it’s 28 days and sometimes it’s 32. I mean, sometimes it’s 4 weeks and sometimes it’s 12, or more. My mood swings and other “symptoms” of my cycle are negligible to non-existent. This method would simply not be viable for me. If I exclude contraception, the only method left to me is the faith option I described above.

      As to practice in general, I think far too many evangelicals have bought into cultural ideas about childbearing and use contraceptives to carry them out. By that I mean, children are too expensive/messy/difficult to consider having more than two, and that having children in the first place must come after a long list of life goals – college, marriage, career, home ownership, and then children. The former idea loses sight of what a gift each and every life is. The latter runs contrary to what is good and healthy for marriage, sex, and female anatomy (i.e. as contraceptive use increases, so too does fertility treatment later on). As a result of these bad ideas, I tend to think we rely on contraceptives too much, but I’m not sure how to balance it all out.

  • http://themillsmedia.com/ Matt Mills

    Good thoughts, Matt. Though, on a note unrelated to the discussion, your fourth link (“Even if the evidence for it is a tad thin”) is broken. Just FYI.

  • Luke Martin Shimek

    Matt- I like the article overall, but just have a slight issue with “At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history.” As someone in the social sciences, that is how I would describe what (many) historians do. Social science, on the other hand, runs the gauntlet from description to analysis to prediction and not all of that within “historical” contexts (e.g. formal theory, lab/field experiments, active participation, institutional design, etc.). While I would agree that “proof-texting” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the social sciences, your representation is not particularly helpful in educating others in the understanding and use of social science within broader contexts. Perhaps everyone should be required to take a “Philosophy of the Social Sciences” course in undergrad before arming themselves?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Luke, we should have a long conversation about this at some point. I didn’t mean by my description that empirical history is the only thing that they do–only what they do best. : ) But you’re right: it was an overly reductive claim, at the least.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

    A few random thoughts:

    1) Riffing a little on what Robbie has said, there are enough different views on evangelicals and birth control (from the Quiverfull-ists to the Q-ists) that I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that “unreflective” is the default position.

    2) There is still no definitive biological evidence that birth control pills are abortifacient, and one of the most popular evangelical treatises on the subject (Randy Alcorn’s) relies pretty heavily on the testimony of a drug rep. The only one we’re pretty sure about are copper IUDs, and those still have plenty of upstream effects. I think we have to be as precise as possible about our science and our theology here, because otherwise we don’t really have a strong ethical case to make.

    3) I would suggest that there is a difference between lame-o social “science” research discussing holy water and population-based studies collecting useful patient-oriented outcomes like the Wash U study (which had some interesting weaknesses but still pretty convincingly demonstrated that when you lower the barrier to LARC, people take advantage of it… and it works pretty well.)

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Good thoughts, Matthew. I hope you’re right that “unreflective” isn’t the default option. That would make me happy.

  • Kim

    Ethical reasons aside about the issue of terminating a life in the womb, my first and foremost issue with contraceptives is that men are freed to use women for their selfish purposes, no strings attached and with the increased pressure put on them by men for such and the very lax moral standards in today’s society regarding premarital sex, women don’t have much to fall back on as a reason not to get intimate with such men before getting to know them better. Abortion allows for the same use of women, even worse as now a woman faces having to raise a baby on her own as the man had no good intentions to begin with in using her for his sexual gratification. And in the case the woman chooses, or is talked into abortion, the woman is injured twice, first by being used, then the trauma of ending the life of her innocent child.

  • http://theivorylighthouse.blogspot.com/ SJ

    I swear, I read every last Anderson-ly eloquent word and still don’t really know what you said. I mean, I’ll assume some information given your conservative persuasion but I’m not sure what else to take. You gave a great many openings to a great many interesting issues, but what’s the conclusion you wanted to reach?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I wanted to reach the conclusion that I reached, down at the bottom of the page. : )

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    Matt,

    Thanks for this review.

    Jenell Williams Paris isn’t a theologian.

    She’s an anthropologist and it doesn’t surprise me in the least to find she advocated passing out contraception to single folks since she holds that celibacy can be harmful.

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  • anoynamouse

    The real reason that jesus-peeps are against contraception?

    If their core base quits having 8.7 children then their church will eventually burn out…it’s a game of stats. Indoctrinate as many as you can and of that 8.7 at least 5.2 will be brainwashed…and the cash cow continues!

    Yes it sounds cynical but at it’s core…it’s a truth.