Trump’s HHS Just Declared That Life Begins At Conception — Here’s Why That’s Dangerous

In an unprecedented move, HHS allows religion to dictate policy
Donald Trump speaks during a church service at Great Faith Ministries, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump speaks during a church service at Great Faith Ministries, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In May, Donald Trump issued the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This order delivered on the Trump campaign’s multiple promises that he would promote a faith-based agenda — especially in regards to reproductive rights and contraceptive access.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the President continue to cater to his Evangelical base, at the expense of women’s healthcare, under the guise of promoting “religious liberty.” On Friday, his administration moved to roll back the contraceptive coverage mandate, enacted by the Obama administration under the Affordable Care Act. Just yesterday— after a speech at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of Christian conservatives — Kellyanne Conway spoke to the President’s faith-based ideals:

And now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released a draft of its strategic plan for 2018 to 2022. In a radical shift from the language used by previous administrations, HHS now defines life as “beginning at conception.”

HHS’ strategic draft plan for 2018–2022

HHS’ strategic draft plan for 2018–2022

Prior administrations have avoided using this wording, which reflects the main talking points of many conservative anti-choice groups. The same paragraph in the last plan began as follows:

HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving Americans at every stage of life.

This shift is unsurprising, given that the draft was released just before the highly conservative former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price resigned amidst controversy over his use of private jet travel. Price has a history of supporting legislation to limit access to contraceptive care and defund women’s health services.

In 2005 and 2007, Price cosponsored fetal personhood bills which would effectively outlaw both abortion and emergency contraception. He also supported an amendment that would have prevented training grants from being used to teach medical students how to perform an abortion.

He’s been a staunch opponent of increasing access to contraception, going so far as to fight a nondiscrimination law that would have protected Washington, D.C. workers from being fired if they used birth control or had had an abortion. When asked about the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate, Price suggested that there aren’t any women who have difficulty obtaining birth control:

Given the views of the man who orchestrated this draft, it is to be expected that the language reflects extremely conservative religious values. However, what should be of much more concern is the fact that HHS guides the policy-making of its governing offices, of which include the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Health — the body responsible for funding contraception research.

The HHS plan isn’t policy — it’s the stuff policy comes from. The inclusion of religious talking points in a document that will guide federal services threatens both women’s healthcare and the existence of the United States as a secular nation.

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More Attacks On Women’s Healthcare

Planned Parenthood supporters rally for women’s access to reproductive health care on “National Pink Out Day’’ at Los Angeles City Hall — Sept. 9, 2015 (AP/Nick Ut, File)

Planned Parenthood supporters rally for women’s access to reproductive health care on “National Pink Out Day’’ at Los Angeles City Hall — Sept. 9, 2015 (AP/Nick Ut, File)

The language in this strategic draft creates great concern for women’s healthcare advocates. By suggesting that the department will protect the “pre-born,” HHS is paving the way for many more attacks on reproductive rights — such as the already seen attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and the ACA contraceptive coverage rollback.

It is worth noting that the draft does not include any references to protecting birth control access in all 65 pages.

Limiting access to contraception and closing reproductive health centers like Planned Parenthood have detrimental effects on women’s health, especially in regards to already disenfranchised groups. Unintended pregnancy rates are highest amongst low-income women, young women, and minority women.

Pregnancies that are not planned can cause severe financial burden on both the mother and the taxpayers, trapping women in a cycle of economic disenfranchisement. The lack of paid maternal leave in many areas of the U.S. compounds upon this financial stress, often requiring mothers to return to work before they are fully recovered. These policies disproportionally affect women of color, as a result of the long history of systematic racism and discrimination in the medical community.

In 2016, unintended pregnancy rates fell to a 30 year low, according to the Guttmacher Institute. One of the likely main components of this decline “was increased use of highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC) methods.” Increasing access to contraceptives decreases unintended pregnancies in high-risk communities, further reducing the health and economic consequences of said pregnancies.

The new HHS draft puts all this progress at risk. By implementing language the relies on faith-based “morality” rather than hard science, women everywhere are at risk of having their health choices taken away from them by a legislative body.

Defining life as beginning at conception may be used as precedent to further regulate birth control. Anti-choice government officials could begin to argue that contraceptives are also an attack on unborn children — a concept which has been seen time and time again in the historic fight for reproductive rights.

The medical community often refuses to take a stance on when life begins. In a conversation with HuffPost, Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health, explained why:

“There’s a reason that we don’t provide a definition of when life begins because there isn’t such a definition in medicine. It’s not a medical concept…The confusion here is that people think that the moment of fertilization is when pregnancy starts. They conflate those two things as one … which isn’t true. Fertilizations occur many more times than pregnancies occur because they often don’t wind up in pregnancies. Fertilization happens in the [fallopian] tube. Pregnancy happens in the uterus.”

The “science” that HHS is citing — which has arbitrarily decided on a point to define as the beginning of human life — is apparently the same kind of false information that the contraceptive mandate rollback was based on. (The announcement of the rollback stated incorrectly that access to birth control increases promiscuity.)

Official government documents that are founded on inaccurate information are scary enough, but when the pseudo-science promotes discriminatory policies that harm women we’ve entered extremely dangerous territory.

The Blurred Lines Between Church And State

Defining life as beginning at conception isn’t the only example of religious views being inserted into this strategic draft. There are nearly forty instances where mention is made to accommodating faith-based organizations. In the previous draft, under the Obama administration, there were only three such examples.

Additionally, there is strong language requiring the implementation of Trump’s aforementioned “religious liberty” executive order:

This type of language sets an extremely dangerous precedent as similar wording has been used in the past to promote discriminatory laws that have had largely problematic outcomes.

In 2015, when he was Governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence signed into law a measure that would allow businesses to refuse service to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This law, presented as a win for religious freedom, faced intense controversy and was later amended. Additionally, he helped enable the worst HIV outbreak in Indiana state history, as a result of enacting policy informed by his personal, religious views rather than informed data and statistics.

After pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, leading to closures of some of the only HIV-testing sites in Indiana, Pence refused time and time again to legalize needle exchange programs, which in doing so furthered the use of HIV-infected syringes. Regardless of the myriad of health experts that back such exchange programs, Pence dragged his feet because he was “morally opposed” to the concept.

When one explores less nationally reported laws it’s even clearer how dangerous enacting policy based on religious ideology can be. In April 2016, Mississippi lawmakers passed a bill intended to allow doctors and therapists to opt out of treating individuals if said treatments conflicted with their religious beliefs. The specific language of this law refers to those that oppose same-sex marriage and pre-marital sex.

So where do these laws end? If a doctor can refuse to treat a patient because of their sexual orientation, how long before they can opt out of treatment because of the color of a person’s skin? How long before employers can fire workers that use contraception or have had an abortion in the past? How long before we completely abandon the concept of separation of church and state?

It’s important to note that the main proponents of religious liberty laws seem to emphasize protections for a limited scope of religions. The laws enacted in this country to promote religious freedom never center on Jewish businesses’ right to refuse service to a customer that doesn’t keep kosher.

When the government extols religious views as the basis for policy, it threatens our constitutional rights. As Thomas Jefferson stated in a letter to the Danbury Baptists:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

The strategic draft released by HHS signals a turning point towards faith-based decision making in regards to healthcare policy. In a moment in our country’s history where progress seems to be under attack, roadmaps like this draft are of special concern. Women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and minority groups are disproportionally affected by the discriminatory laws enacted under the guise of religious liberty.

Every American citizen should have the right to worship as they chose. However, these laws do not promote religious freedom — they actively attack citizens who do not ascribe to the same Evangelical Christian values of the policymakers.

Using one’s religion as an excuse to discriminate on basis of sexual orientation, use of birth control, or stance on abortion is appalling — and HHS is making it easier for people to do exactly that.

The draft is open for public comment until October 27th. You can reach out to the department via their website, e-mail ([email protected]), fax (202–690–5882), or U.S. mail at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Strategic Planning Team, Attn: Strategic Plan Comments, 200 Independence Avenue, SW, Room 415F, Washington, DC 20201.

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