HHS Makes Discriminating Against Reproductive Rights Central To Its Mission

Toni Van Pelt
Oct 25, 2017 · 4 min read

Three little words. That’s all it took for Donald Trump, and his recently departed Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, to make turning back the clock on women’s reproductive rights central to the agency’s new mission.

As a Member of Congress, Tom Price sponsored the “Right to Life Act,” a bill that defined life as beginning at conception and would give zygotes full legal rights trumping the rights and happiness of women, with no exception for rape, incest, or threat to a woman’s life.

Now, the strategic review process begun by Tom Price continues under the leadership of religious conservatives like Teresa Manning, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, an anti-abortion activist who once claimed that the “efficacy” of birth control is “very low” and that “family planning is something that occurs between a husband and a wife and God.”

HHS operates under a strategic plan that “defines its mission, goals, and the means by which it will measure its progress in addressing specific national problems over a four-year period.” A draft of the FY 2018–2022 Strategic Plan makes a radical change to the previous version.

The earlier document began, following a brief “mission statement,” with this sentence:

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

But the Trump Administration’s version cut and pasted that line and then added three telltale, highly charged and politically calculated words (emphasis added):

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

This alarming and unproven assertion directly undermines the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade that affirms the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, and is a thinly-veiled declaration of the government’s attempt to limit reproductive rights.

HHS has already opened the door for a barrage of actions against women, particularly low-income women, immigrant women, and women of color. Their recent move to shred the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers cover birth control is just the first example.

A woman’s reproductive choices should be between herself and a licensed health care provider, not Congress, not the President of the United States, not the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and not someone’s religious beliefs.

The use of personhood language emphasizes the department’s skewed priorities, and sets a dangerous precedent for future policy. It is also a patently absurd example of pseudo-science designed to obfuscate, not enlighten or inform. It is meant to eliminate women’s primary presence from pregnancy.

The question here is not when life begins. It is whether or not a woman decides to carry a pregnancy to full term or chooses to terminate the pregnancy. This is a decision that is her’s alone.

The anti-choice zealots now setting national policy at HHS conflate conception with personhood because they are intent on taking control over her body away from a woman and gifting it to employers and the government.

As Jodi Jacobson wrote in a 2012 article for Rewire,

“In debating the ‘personhood’ of eggs, embryos, and fetuses prior to viability, we are also implicitly and explicitly debating the personhood of women. Because if you have no choice and control over your body, you are less than an actual person in the eyes of the law. If the right is so worried about abortion the closer a pregnancy gets to viability, then anti-choicers would be making sure both contraception and early, safe abortion were widely available. That really is not their actual concern.

“The development of a potential human life requires conception as a first step. But that is not the same as either pregnancy or personhood. You can’t reduce complex reality to a slogan, and when you try to do so, you actually minimize the personhood of women.”

And of course, that is precisely their goal.

At a time when our society is being riven by a debate over whether women in Hollywood can control their bodies from the depravations of predatory men in powerful positions, we must be equally vigilant towards the federal government’s efforts to limit women’s autonomy and reproductive choices.

HHS has asked for the public to weigh in on the review process for the new strategic plan with a comments period that ends October 27. They need to hear from all of us who consider women’s rights, self autonomy and happiness — not to mention the federal separation of church and state — of primary importance.

Toni Van Pelt

Written by

President, National Organization for Women