The Trump administration has repeatedly delivered on a campaign promise to the religious right that he’d prioritize a faith-based, anti-choice agenda. The latest evidence comes in the form of the draft strategic plan released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which defines life as “beginning at conception.”
The draft was released two weeks ago, before HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned, and it outlines the priorities of the agency and its governing offices. As Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, pointed out, HHS went beyond the normative promise from conservatives to promote faith-based partnerships, and declared that the life of each human begins at conception.
“It’s concerning because HHS isn’t just a theoretical group that writes think pieces no one reads,” Dr. Gunter told ThinkProgress. “We are replacing science with beliefs.”
The plan is a road map provided to the public of where the agency intends to go, and it also serves as a guidance from the head to agencies and offices it governs. That includes the Office of Population Affairs, which oversees the Title X program, and the National Institute of Health, which funds contraception research. The new HHS goals outlined look drastically different from guidance issued under the Obama administration, as pointed out by health expert Timothy Jost. Even guidance issued under President George W. Bush’s secretary was tamer, as it prioritized faith-based partnerships but did not use such overt anti-abortion language.
“This is a politically motivated change,” said Guttmacher Institute’s Elizabeth Nash. “This is not being brought up by public health officials. The medical consensus is a woman is considered pregnant during the implantation of a fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus.”
The language used in the recent HHS draft — which is open for public comments until October 27 — is largely seen in fetal personhood bills, which try to establish that life begins at conception and declare that the state constitution does not protect the right to abortion, said Nash who tracks state policies. These bills have not been successful, and voters from both progressive states like Colorado and conservative states like North Dakota and Mississippi rejected them. (There is a ballot initiative in Alabama this November.) Now, HHS is championing the rhetoric that abortion opponents have used for decades.
Another piece of this, says Nash, is that fetal personhood extends beyond abortion rights and influences contraception access. “How would this interplay with programs designed to support contraception services?” asked Nash. She and Gunter speculated whether Medicaid and Title X funding that covers contraception would be called into question.
The HHS directive should come as no surprise. The Trump administration’s targeting of contraception access has gone further than just mere guidance. On Friday, the administration rolled back an Obama-era requirement for employers to include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. The new rule cited doubtful science, as pointed out by several health writers. Like the HHS directive, the rule ignored science-based evidence that improved contraceptive use correlates with a decline in overall adolescent pregnancy and instead cited research largely argued by the religious right. Also on Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memorandum on religious liberty protections for all executive departments and agencies, which could influence LGTBQ rights in addition to reproductive rights.
“Could say that the strategic plan works in conjunction with guidance from Sessions and points to a lot of concern we would have in regards to how grants and contracts will be implemented and how that affects LGBTQ and reproductive health,” Dena Sher, assistant legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told ThinkProgress.
None of this should come as any surprise, as Trump made his anti-choice stance clear throughout the campaign, when he called for doctors who provide abortions to be punished (a comment he later walked back) and coalesced around pro-life members like Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. His vice president is Mike Pence, who has fought against reproductive health activists for years. He has also packed his health agency with anti-choice employees like Matthew Bowman, a former lawyer to the Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, and Theresa Manning, former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee.
Religious affiliated organization have always partnered with federal government government, but every religion should be treated the same — and in this case, only the most conservative interpretations seem to be heard. Take fetal personhood: many religious traditions are not in agreement about when life begins. Even denominations within Christianity do not believe abortion is akin to murder.
For now, the influence of these interpretations of faith in the administration aren’t going anywhere beyond the rollback of the contraception mandate. Many within the religious right told The Hill they hope that whoever replaces Price will apply the Weldon amendment, the so-called conscience clause protecting entities that decline to give abortions because of religious objections. The Obama administration neglected to enforce the so-called “right of conscience.”