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Today Is the Last Day to Tell HHS That Life Doesn't 'Begin at Conception'

Advocates explain why the language included in the department’s drafted strategic plan is “fundamentally at odds with a woman’s right to access basic healthcare.”

Today is the last day to let the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) know it's not OK to redefine life as "beginning at conception."

HHS is the federal government agency in charge of protecting the health of all Americans and, contrary to some of the policy changes and proposals that endorsed by the Trump administration, that includes women, too. Earlier this month, the department released its 2018-2022 strategic plan, and a number of revisions caught the attention of women's reproductive rights advocates. Gynecologist Jen Gunter, for example, called these "non science ideas" the "preamble to the Handmaid's Tale."


Setting the stage for a whole litany of potential barriers for women's access to health care, the very beginning of the drafted document notes that "HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception." In other words, the federal government intends to allow religion to dictate policy by protecting fetuses by any means necessary.

The previous plan under the Obama administration read: "HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving Americans at every stage of life." Even the Bush administration's 2004-2008 strategic plan, which made abstinence-only education a priority, did not include the word "conception."

In an op-ed for the LA Times, Richard Paulson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at USC and the president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, explained why this foundational change, which appears several times throughout the draft, is worrisome: "This is a religious definition of life, not a scientific one. Health and Human Services is a government organization. Its actions should be evidence-based, not faith-based, and this decidedly unscientific language should be eliminated from its strategic plan."

He continued: "From a scientific perspective, life doesn't begin at any one point, it is a continuum. For HHS to define it as beginning at conception is a transparent attempt to justify restrictions on certain contraceptives as well as abortion. It may also have an unintended consequence: the restriction of infertility treatments, especially in vitro fertilization."

Kaylie Hanson Long, the national communications director at NARAL, says the language included in the department's drafted plan is "fundamentally at odds with a woman's right to access basic healthcare." That's particularly alarming, she tells Broadly, because the policies that come out of HHS cover a wide range of issues.

"It's hard to keep an eye on all the awful things coming from this administration on a daily basis, but the new HHS strategy—crafted by anti-choice activists—to undermine women's rights is absolutely something we all need to be concerned about as will touch so many parts of our lives," Long says. "The unprecedented access the anti-choice movement has to this administration should set off major alarm bells for Americans who believe in women's rights and reproductive freedom. The language in HHS' new plan is synonymous with some of the most extreme anti-choice efforts to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to legal abortion."

She continues: "What's missing from the plan is any meaningful commitment to preserving or expanding critical reproductive health care services, which is incredibly dangerous for women and families across the country who need them."