Trump administration sneaks three words into health doc that undermine reproductive rights
Tweaking just a few words in a sentence can change its meaning entirely. The Trump administration recently did just that—and the tiny edit may have drastic repercussions for women.
It’s easy to miss the three little words tacked on to the end of a key sentence in the introduction to the Department of Health and Human Services’ strategic plan, which may have been the point. A new draft of the plan is released every four years, and serves as a blueprint for reaching the department’s goals, establishes its mission, and is used measure progress. Under the Obama administration, the line in the plan’s introduction read: “HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving Americans at every stage of life.”
The end of that sentence in the 2018-2022 draft plan, released October 11, reads “…serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.” (Emphasis mine.) The word conception appears in similar contexts five times total throughout the draft, which is open for public comment until October 27. (The word conception never appears in the Obama draft.)
Eight months into the Trump presidency, there is abundant evidence that the administration prioritizes the value of fertilized eggs over the rights of female-identifying people living outside of the womb, and over peer-reviewed science. From allowing employers and insurers to deny contraception coverage, to endorsing legislation that would bar abortions after 20 weeks, to proposing a budget that cuts all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, it’s hard to scan the news these days without encountering another Trump-led effort to suppress reproductive health care access for women.
Consider the case of “Jane Doe,” a 17-year-old undocumented Central American woman who was detained by federal agents in September after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Doe, who is now incarcerated in Brownsville, Texas, came to the U.S. seeking refuge from her physically abusive home life, according to her lawyers.
After learning during a medical exam that she was pregnant, Doe requested an abortion. Texas state law prohibits abortion for minors who don’t have parental consent or a judge’s order—so Doe got a waiver from a state judge. That’s when the Trump-appointed head of the HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, E. Scott Lloyd, stepped in to stop her by citing a policy introduced in March that prevents any undocumented minor in federal custody from accessing abortion care.
Last week, a federal judge ordered the government to allow the abortion, but that decision was quickly appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which granted the government a stay, again preventing Doe from getting an abortion. A three-judge panel from the D.C. court told the government on Friday that they have until the end of October to find Doe a “private sponsor”—essentially, an adult citizen willing to house and care for her. Several potential sponsors stepped forward, but that vetting and approval process itself can take months. The ACLU, which has been representing Doe, asked for a review of the stay from the full 10-judge appeals court.
Meanwhile with each delay, the clock has been ticking for Doe, who is now almost 16 weeks pregnant. Under Texas law, a woman is no longer legally able to have an abortion after 20 weeks. The government essentially contended that Doe had two choices: leave the U.S., or continue her pregnancy.
Today, the appeals court finally ruled that Doe can go ahead and have her abortion.
HHS, however, is now well staffed with anti-abortion advocates. In April, Trump named Charmaine Yoest the department’s assistant secretary of public affairs. Yoest is the former president and CEO of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion organization. In 2012, the pro-life zealot told a reporter for The New York Times Magazine that abortion causes breast cancer—a scientifically disproven assertion. In the same interview, Yoest disputed the numerous studies that show access to contraceptives decreases abortion rates, and said IUDs have “life-ending properties.”
The HHS plan isn’t in itself law or policy, but the department does guide the policies of numerous influential agencies and offices, including the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. The language added to the plan draws a clear line to what is known as the “personhood movement,” which backs bills across the country that aim to grant constitutional protections to fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses by classifying them as people from the moment of conception.
At its core, the success of the personhood movement—and the ideologies of those at the helm of the HHS—is contingent on the rejection of established medical science, and the belief that the government should control women’s reproductive choices. And now three little words have just brought them all closer to achieving exactly that.
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