Factual truth is too often lost in heated political discourse

Noah M. Horwitz

When is a lie a lie and when is it a political conviction made in good faith? Recent flare ups in Washington and the Texas gubernatorial election show that sometimes the two are interchangeable. Unfortunately, our political system has grown to accept its participants’ fibs, sometimes with strange results.

For example, about two weeks ago, the popular crafts chain store Hobby Lobby was in the news after its suit against the federal government reached the Supreme Court. The store was arguing against a provision in the Affordable Care Act, known by some as Obamacare, that requires employers to provide free or reduced-cost contraception to their employees. Citing religious liberty, the owners of the privately held corporation refused to do this, which triggered the lawsuit.

At first glance, a suit such as this, about corporate personhood and religious liberty, would appear to be a good-faith dispute made over legitimate political convictions. The problem with this is that Hobby Lobby does not actually cite categorical opposition to contraception as the basis for its lawsuit. Instead, it cites a belief that many forms of contraception, including some pills and intrauterine devices, are tantamount to abortion. Scientifically speaking, this is simply not true, as no evidence exists that indicates these methods end a pregnancy after fertilization. In fact, most evidence decisively shows that IUDs — or the other birth control methods Hobby Lobby cited, such as Plan B — are contraceptives and not abortifacients.

“The two companies that challenged the law — Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes furniture — say that some drugs and intrauterine devices are tantamount to abortion,” said Adam Liptak, a Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times. “Those claims are not generally accepted by scientists.”

Another example of these misleading claims has oft been cited in the recent gubernatorial controversy over equal pay for women. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, recently made headlines when he announced he would veto a bill that would have made it easier for women to sue over wage discrimination in state court. Supporting this bill was the claim that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, which is probably a statistic you have read before. All by itself, that claim is more or less true, but when the phrase “for equal work” is added, the claim loses its factual potency.

“The 77-cent figure compares all male and female workers, regardless of their occupation,” PolitiFact ruled in 2012. “Whether due to a historical legacy of discrimination or because of personal choice, women and men are disproportionately represented in certain jobs.”

Granted, women still earn less than men for doing the same work, and they should have a wide variety of options at their disposal to fight that injustice through the court system. But the 77 cents statistic is misleadingly exaggerated and does no favors for the movement. Similarly, Hobby Lobby is frankly a terrible plaintiff in this Obamacare case if, indeed, it is really about contraception and religious liberty. Making untrue claims hinders the cause at hand.

When we, as a society, accept falsehoods in our political discourse, it cheapens everyone’s argument and lessens the integrity of robust debate.

While I may not personally oppose Obamacare’s contraception mandate, I still believe we should address any legal disputes that may arise from it. But American courts are not supposed to humor theoretical cases, so we all lose in cases such as this one, where the Supreme Court must accept false premises in a landmark case. If another store owned by a fundamentalist Christian, who specifically had a categorical opposition to all forms of contraception, wanted to bring the suit, that would be one thing. Hobby Lobby’s strange argument is quite another.

These cases should serve as a gentle reminder to dig a little deeper into the details of political debates to see why someone argues what he or she does and what evidence may be used to support those points. Blindly accepting or believing something can sometimes come perilously close to condoning fibbing.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston.