Hobby Lobby and China’s Abortion Policy

In the ongoing public dispute over whether Hobby Lobby is justified in its resistance to the so-called “contraception mandate,” the reductio ad China has been one of the more effective rhetorical moves that liberals have made. Rachel Held Evans has deployed it a number of times on Twitter, and Daily Kos has a version of it as well. The rhetorical point is an easy one to make, if only because it seems so intuitive and straightforward: Because Hobby Lobby does business with China, and China has forced abortions, they are inconsistent for objecting to the now-infamous HHS mandate on grounds that it would involve them in practices they find morally repugnant.

How might Hobby Lobby’s rejoinder go?

'Hobby Lobby' photo (c) 2011, Ken Teegardin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing to notice is that the analogy only goes forward if it is true that “doing business”—a phrase so ambiguous that it’s basically useless—with China means providing material support for abortions, or support for the government’s decision to create conditions where forced abortions occur. If people can “do business” with China without supporting the policy or contributing material support for the abortions that occur, then the charge of inconsistency would fall apart or we’d have to get back to talking about whether compliance with the HHS mandate is sufficiently morally problematic as to give business owners legitimate grounds to object to it.

Construed broadly, however, the notion “doing business” with China means either of the conditions above may have the rather nasty consequence of implicating *anyone* who has ever bought a Chinese made product in providing material support for abortions. That may be acceptable to some people, but it initially seems to me too rigid of a criterion. One way around that would be to say that our involvement with “China” as consumers from Hobby Lobby (or any other business) is for some reason less culpable than the businesses who purchase those products there. But that ignores the fact that businesses purchase Chinese products because (surprise!) people in the States buy them. If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.

In fact, if we attend for a second to the various relationships at work then it becomes clear why the *reductio ad China* is nothing more than a bit of sophistry. Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. If Hobby Lobby were to pay their employees ten dollars more per week, the question of material cooperation drops away, as the financial compensation would not include morally repugnant benefits. But their relationship to abortions in China is mediated both by the businesses that they purchase products from and the government that has the one-child policy. Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.

Which is to say, the analogy gets its rhetorical energy precisely by leaving out the very distinctions that reasonable moral reflection about how to move through the world depends upon. Using “China” (among other terms!) without discriminating between the government per se and their policy, Chinese businesses, the people who are employed at those business, Chinese society shortcuts any meaningful moral analysis.

But let’s just focus on Hobby Lobby’s relationship to the respective governments. As Bethany Persons rightly noted, Hobby Lobby engages in voluntary contracts in China with other businesses, contracts that the government presumably has some interest in allowing to continue precisely because of the financial benefits for the Chinese people. The non-coercive character of the relationship means that the form of negotiation is one of persuasion: Hobby Lobby cannot change the Chinese policy, except by leveraging their business status within the country for good. The only problem, though, is that Hobby Lobby is relatively insignificant to China on its own, which is why the main responsibility for such negotiations and pressure falls to the American government. Because of the overlap of our economies, both China and the United States have interests in each other’s nations, which makes it harder to critique each other but not—as President Bush showed—impossible.

Their relationship to the HHS mandate obviously lacks that voluntary character. From Hobby Lobby’s standpoint, there are two intertwined wrongs: abortificients are being used, and the United States government is compelling them to purchase insurance that pays for them. Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.  Nor would it account for the fact that as an American business owned by American citizens, Hobby Lobby and their owners may have special obligations to pursue the right within their own country first and foremost.  Nor does it acknowledge that Hobby Lobby has legal recourse to pursue righting the second wrong that it lacks with the Chinese government. But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.

There may be good reasons to think Hobby Lobby is morally wrong to press its case against the government, but the fact that they purchase products in China is simply not among them.

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  • Bethany Persons

    Thanks for the shout out!

    The only rebuttal I can imagine coming from someone who deploys the reductio ad China argument is that China’s government and business are not as separate in China as they are here. Though China’s growth increases as they give their companies greater autonomy, they are still not very far out of the communist woods. I didn’t really pick up on that being part of the argument though.

    Nonetheless, if a person really wanted to remove themselves from any tangle of “doing business with China”, it would take a truly heroic kind of boycott. I have trouble accepting this argument from someone who claims to be pro-life but has not demonstrated a personal willingness to put their money where their mouth is.

  • wmrharris

    The nub of the argument is whether the supplies Hobby Lobby sells are produced by the state-owned or prison industries. If so, then that “made in China” becomes a complicity in the abortion regime of the People’s Republic. Moreover, it is not at all clear that there are no other sources for such goods; no one forces a firm from buying from the state industries of China.

    Why one should think that buying the goods through an intermediary involves less complicity than how an employee utilizes an insurance contract escapes me. The latter is only true if one thinks that there exists some other, greater relationship between employer and employee, a hidden paternalism perhaps.

    Given the differing reactions from the company between its purchase and insurance decisions, one may want to look elsewhere for motive than that of moral complicity in abortion.

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

      WMRHarris,

      “Why one should think that buying the goods through an intermediary involves less complicity than how an employee utilizes an insurance contract escapes me. The latter is only true if one thinks that there exists some other, greater relationship between employer and employee, a hidden paternalism perhaps.”

      I think I gave several reasons why they are different situations above. HL isn’t “buying abortificients through an intermediary” in China *at all.* They are buying products to sell, the profits of which may eventually fund an abortion.

      Matt

      • wmrharris

        I think you are missing that HL is making a supply-chain decision as to whom to buy from. The element of ethics necessarily intrudes; we properly deride those who build their clothing business on sweat-shop labor; likewise we act to boycott blood-diamonds. Thus the conditions of the origin of the goods are part of the decision making for the buyer. To buy goods produced by a state-industry inescapably entangles the buyer in that state’s policies.

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

          I don’t think I am missing that, actually. I’m saying that even while that’s the case, it doesn’t make them inconsistent in fighting their own government’s regulations. Simply repeating that they are “entangled” doesn’t get past the questions about what that means.

  • Michael Hansen

    I feel like the argument from the left is that two wrongs make a right. RHE seems inconsistent because everywhere else liberal perspectives champion a gradual approach to reform but not in this case.

    Michael

    Twitter: _Michael_Hansen

    Blog: MichaelAlanHansen.WordPress.com

    • MMaximuSS1975

      I don’t recall “liberals” using a holy book that states, “An eye for an eye…” as an excuse. That is conservative mantra.

  • Carolyn Putney

    A business that sells goods has to get them from somewhere. There is nothing saying that if HL were to get their goods from the US vs. China that the idea of “contributing” to abortion would be any different. For all any of us knows, the owners, corporate board, etc. of Company XYZ supports abortion. Ex: You sell cookies and your supplier is the Girl Scouts; who actively support Planned Parenthood. In an idealistic retail world, companies that wanted to purely do business with suppliers who are “like minded” would go out of business. HL is right to oppose compliance with the ACA and I applaud them for it.

  • Eric

    Sorry, but your whole argument seems to boil down to “eh, Hobby Lobby buys stuff in China, so what? No meaningful moral dilemma here.”

    “If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.”

    And? Why not accept that conclusion and reflect a little more about how American consumerism is predicated on the labor, and labor conditions, of people in circumstances we wouldn’t accept for ourselves, as others in the thread have suggested? Instead, it seems you think this is a kind of reductio argument itself. ‘If we’re all guilty, we’re all equally guilty, and that’s just silly.” But you’re missing one of those important nuances that seem to matter so much in your defense of Hobby Lobby. Unlike Hobby Lobby, the average Joe or Jane Consumer doesn’t claim to make economic decisions based on their religious convictions. So why aren’t labor practices and working conditions in China part of the equation here? If The Gap considers those relevant moral issues, why doesn’t Hobby Lobby, or its defenders?

    “Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.”

    Hobby Lobby’s business relationships in China don’t raise eyebrows simply because they might be materially supporting abortions there. But it is, as you suggest, a matter of consistency, or the appearance of consistency. If the Greens are so opposed to abortion that they refuse to provide insurance coverage for certain contraception methods (and even refuse to accept medical understandings of how those methods actually work)–why are they willing to have *any* type of relationship with a country so well-known for its abortion practices as China? Why choose to do business there at all? Is it really unreasonable to expect the Greens to be so uncompromising when they make such a public (and profitable) show of their “biblical values” and when no one is forcing Hobby Lobby to buy products made in China? Put yet another way: why is even indirect complicity with abortion acceptable for someone like the Greens, especially when that complicity is avoidable, even if at a financial cost?

    “Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.”

    Perhaps not. But it would undermine their moral standing to challenge that second wrong, not least because the inconsistency suggests that Hobby Lobby is more concerned with profits than with “biblical principles.”

    “But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.”

    This is overblown, which suggests you know you are reaching or you know you are being disingenuous. For one thing, I seriously doubt you find it “troubling” that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “forced” some people to go against “what they considered to be grave moral wrongs” with respect to race relations. Please note, the analogy here focuses not race and birth control, but on federal law and personal morality. Just because you and the Greens oppose abortion does not mean the mandate represents some new type of governmental overreach.

    And I don’t see how you wrote “with little concern for the welfare of its own people” with a straight face. The ACA, and the mandate, were passed expressly out of concern for the American people, and you know that. You can argue that the law isn’t really in their best interests, but you can’t honestly say the government is unconcerned about their interests. More to the point, the mandate concerns the welfare of American women in particular, which of course is the real underlying issue.

  • EighteenCharacters

    I find this article, although compelling, attempts to redefine one important factor. The ACA rule in question is related to contraception, not abortifacients, which are drugs administered with the sole purpose of causing a miscarriage.

    The ACA mandates coverage for more than a dozen forms of birth control, already covered by insurance plans provided by Hobby Lobby. But Hobby Lobby is refusing to cover methods of contraception that interfere with an already-fertilized egg’s ability to implant itself in the womb, hence the Supreme Court hearing. These methods of contraception include IUDs and the so-called “morning after pill,” which are covered under the ACA.

    Abortifacients, such as RU-486 and methotrexate — which do cause medically-induced miscarriages — are not covered under the ACA.

    Since language is important to the debate, these distinctions are worth pointing out. If Hobby Lobby (and this article’s author) chooses to redefine the language in order to shape the debate, then their stance demands further scrutiny.

    From a personal standpoint, I believe their stance does more harm than good. Past abstinence, contraception is the next best safeguard against abortion. Eliminating access to IUDs and Plan B does little more than increase the chance of an old-fashioned abortion. And that is, without a doubt, the last thing anyone wants.

    • ImTheNana

      Plan B is over the counter. It should not be in the mandate at all, just as condoms are not.

      • EighteenCharacters

        Plan B is over-the-counter, but can also be prescribed. Without a prescription, it is not in the mandate. With a prescription, it is in the mandate.

        Other types of orally-ingested emergency contraception, including the more effective ones such as levonorgestrel and ella, are only available with a prescription, and are also included in the mandate. All of these could be called “Plan B” pills under the broader definition.

        Condoms are not comparable to the Plan B pill. Condoms might as well be called “Plan A.”

        Plan B pills should remain readily available for those instances when “Plan A” doesn’t work as expected. Latex can tear, after all. Thankfully, there are alternatives to abortions in these situations, and those alternatives are the various forms of emergency contraception that are available in one form or another. And none of these forms of emergency contraception are considered “abortifacients” under the definition of the word.

        • ImTheNana

          “Other types of orally-ingested emergency contraception, including the more effective ones such as levonorgestrel…”

          Fail. Plan B is levonorgestrel.

          Fail. “Do I need a prescription for Plan B One-Step®?
          No, Plan B One-Step® is available over the counter, so you don’t need a prescription at all. You should be able to find Plan B One-Step® in the aisle at a store near you. Just take it off the shelf and pay for it at the cashier. No prescription or ID required.” -PlanB website. If it does not need a prescription, it should not be covered. Just like lo-dose aspirin, even though some doctor might prescribe it.

          Fail. PlanB website says it can inhibit implantation, which means it also has a contragestive MOA, not just a contraceptive one. Ulipristal acetate is both agonistic and antagonistic, as it is an SPRM.

  • Dion Anthony Saenz

    If you are really “adamant” about not supporting abortions, anywhere. They would not do business with anyone in China. Because by doing so, no matter the how significant, would not support such a horrific government. It would be like boycotting any business that doesn’t support your beliefs. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But to just say it wouldn’t matter is not enough. Hobby Lobby is a hypocrite.

  • csalafia

    “Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. ”

    Then it goes to the other that by purchasing 93% of their stock from China, they are materially cooperating in child labor, forced abortion, and other human rights abuses.

    One cannot claim material cooperation in one case and then dismiss it in the other.

  • tmservo

    This is a terrible argument.. that it is only ‘tangentially’ related in china, but directly related in the US. By providing employee benefits in the US it is only ‘tangentially’ related. The pay belongs to the employee, not Hobby Lobby. The benefits received by the employee are part of the employee compensation, not the good will of Hobby Lobby. Not all employees will chose birth control. If Hobby Lobby wants to lobby them to chose to use the rhythm method, good for them.

    As an alternative, in China, Hobby Lobby contracts – knowingly – with a company that enforces the standard labor contract there.. virtual slave labor.. in a country with an enforced abortion policy. Hobby Lobby can only guess that some of their employees in the US will get birth control.. and again, it’s not their money in the US, it’s employee pay. In China, they can be 100% assured that the money they pay in to the government over there goes directly to forced abortion, demanded family planning and slave labor.

    So which one is more tangential?

  • robertallen1

    That’s not the point, idiot. The owners of Hobby Lobby are a bunch of goddam hypocrites.