science of us

Trump Health Officials Just Quietly Defined Life As ‘Beginning at Conception’

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

There were so many things to be angry about last week that it’s understandable if you missed this one: The draft of the Department of Health and Human Services 2018–2022 strategic plan contains language that claims life begins at conception. As an ob-gyn, I’m alarmed. You should be, too.

The HHS strategic plan is drafted every four years, intended to clarify the administration’s focus; under President Barack Obama, for example, the 2014–2018 plan highly prioritized matters relating to health insurance. The introduction for that plan contained this line:

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

The 2018–2022 version, on the other hand, has been updated to this:

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.

This new phrasing means one thing: personhood, the ideology that a fertilized egg has the same rights as a woman. The word “unborn” also appears in the new plan.

I cannot stress enough how worrisome this is. The HHS isn’t some obscure government organization; it has a budget of $1 trillion and controls Medicaid, Medicare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Indian Health Service. The HHS oversees how we study medicine, how we approve medications and medical devices, how we provide medical care, and how we track health outcomes. If a fertilized egg is defined as the start of life in the final draft of the HHS plan, this could have sweeping and devastating consequences for everyone, and not just women.

For instance, abortions are not paid for with federal money, but could the HHS stop all federal Medicaid funds for states that pay for abortion with state Medicaid dollars? Could Medicaid stop paying for IUDs? Could the FDA make it more difficult to get a new method of contraception approved? Could health plans be pressured into eliminating coverage for IUDs or infertility therapy? Could the NIH stop awarding grants to study contraception or treatment for infertility? Could the CDC use inappropriate metrics for tracking abortion outcomes? Could infertility treatments be considered the same as abortion?

And yet this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In September 2016, then-candidate Trump announced that if elected, he would turn the issues of reproductive health over to the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that opposes not only abortion but many forms of birth control as well. They tout misconceptions about fetal pain, want to defund Planned Parenthood, and advance the falsehood that IUDs and emergency contraception are abortifacients. (They aren’t.)

Former HHS secretary Tom Price had quite the anti-choice track record, but just because he’s gone doesn’t mean anyone who cares about women’s health can rest easy. The HHS is still filled with Trump appointees with concerning approaches to reproductive health, such as Charmaine Yoest, former president of Americans United for Life, Teresa Manning, deputy assistant for population affairs who has questioned if birth control even works, and Valerie Huber, a prominent abstinence-only sex education advocate.

The draft of the HHS strategic plan is currently open for public comment. You have until October 27 to have your say.

Health Officials Defining Life As ‘Beginning at Conception’