Trump administration officially defines life as beginning at conception

There is new language in the federal health agency's mission statement and strategic plan 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Wednesday 11 October 2017 13:34 BST
A pro-choice activist demonstrates in the middle of pro-life activists as they demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court during the March For Life in Washington DC 27 January 2017.
A pro-choice activist demonstrates in the middle of pro-life activists as they demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court during the March For Life in Washington DC 27 January 2017. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has made a move to officially assert that life begins at conception.

In a step that will please religious conservatives who supported Mr Trump's bid for the presidency, new language was inserted into the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018-2022 strategic plan. It said that its mission was "serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception”.

The change in language is accompanied by a section on “designing options responsive to consumer demands while removing barriers for faith-based and other providers”.

This is a reflection of the Trump administration’s stance on birth control and abortion access in the US, both through employers and in the open marketplace.

Washington DC-based advocacy group National Partnership for Women and Families Vice President Sarah Lipton-Lubet told The Independent that the new HHS language is "is yet another example of the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on women’s health, civil rights and equal justice."

Pushing Congress to defund Planned Parenthood - a charity that provides free or low-cost reproductive health care - and other policies are just the administration's way of "sanctioning discrimination against women under the guise of protecting religious liberty," Ms Lipton-Lubet said.

Experts have said Vice President Mike Pence’s much-touted Christian values are what have fed the policies of the administration, primarily the Global Gag rule.

The policy allows the US State Department to withhold funding to any foreign agencies or organisations that offer abortion services, or even speak about them to women.

Mr Trump has expanded on the version of the policy that was in place during the George W Bush administration - US funding can now be cut to any global health assistance offered by these foreign organisations that offer or discuss abortion services, even medical services that have nothing to do with family planning or abortions if they receive US funds.

Domestically, the administration has been more policy-oriented rather than fiscal in its conservatism on this issue.

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Late last week, the administration announced it would rollback the Obamacare mandate that employers’ pay for workers’ birth control.

The only group opposed to the requirement according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll were evangelical Christians, who seem to have gotten a big win for the move.

Opposition groups had been saying for years that paying into a plan that covered contraceptives was antithetical to religious beliefs held by the owners of the company.

Proponents argued that these corporations were not people themselves, but also had no right to impose religious beliefs on others even if they were employees of any kind.

But, Dr Jen Gunter explained in a recent blog post about the HHS language that it “ isn’t just aimed at women wanting birth control.”

She wrote: “Yes, the agency tasked with enhancing the “health and well-being of Americans” now believes that certain religious beliefs are more important than health care. This could apply to contraception, abortion, vaccines, addiction medicine, sexually transmitted infection screening, and transgender care just to name a few.”

There are those who have religious beliefs that espouse not administering vaccines to children for diseases such as measles and polio, eradicated epidemics in the US.

Dr Meera Shah, a Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health in New York City, told The Independent that the new language is disconcerting to see because “contraception is a basic part of healthcare”.

She works with patients of all genders and primarily provides care for marginalised populations in the LGBT community.

Ms Shah said that in some circumstances the contraceptive care she provides is life-saving. For instance, in the case of ectopic pregnancies, when the fetus is outside of the uterus or in other cases where the patient has another medical condition that poses a threat.

She also noted that faith-based decisions about healthcare could negatively impact her transmasculine patients who need hormones or contraceptive implants like intrauterine devices (IUDs) to stop periods or unplanned pregnancies.

Ms Shah’s patients are primarily low income as well and without the Obamacare mandate, could not afford contraceptive care. She noted that before the mandate, patients could either not have tailored care or any at all.

Without required coverage, IUDs can range in cost from $750-$1,000 up front, but she explained that even a monthly birth control prescription, the visits to implant the device or get a prescription, and any necessary follow-up care “adds up”.

Ms Shah’s clinic and many others that offer services to marginalised populations are often funded with federal money and the new HHS language combined with the birth control ruling has definitely resulted in one thing: uncertainty.

But, there are also potential problems for patients seeking out alternatives and the country could possibly see an uptick in unplanned pregnancies.

Ms Shah practises in New York, however, and generally the state has been more progressive on healthcare issues - particularly access to abortions and contraception - and could require public and private insurance providers in the state to provide coverage despite a federal policy but that remains to be seen in a shifting political climate.

In Washington, the policy battle will continue in Congress.

Ms Lipton-Lubet said the Trump administration "shamelessly and cruelly targets women’s health and economic security with nearly every action, and unfortunately, the HHS strategic plan is more of the same" and Republicans say they seek to spend less taxpayer money on healthcare overall while catering to some members' Christian evangelical base.

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