Health Department Draft Plan Declares Life Begins At Conception

Here's why that's a problem.
Anti-abortion protesters march in Washington, D.C., at the annual March for Life in January. Official government languag
Anti-abortion protesters march in Washington, D.C., at the annual March for Life in January. Official government language establishing that life begins at conception could tilt the scales toward more infringement on women's reproductive choices.

The Department of Health and Human Services released its strategic plan for 2018 to 2022 last month. As Jezebel reported Tuesday, the introduction now includes: “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.” The concept of “life at conception” is mentioned four more times in the 65-page report

This idea has long been used by the anti-abortion community as justification for its protests, constant attempts to pass anti-abortion legislation (like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which the House passed last week, that would ban abortions after 20 weeks) and remains a pillar of the religious far-right’s agenda.

But there is no medical determination that “life” starts at conception.  

Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health, told HuffPost on Wednesday that medical professionals purposefully don’t take a stance on the topic.

“There’s a reason that we don’t provide a definition of when life begins because there isn’t such a definition in medicine,” she said. “It’s not a medical concept.”

Davis elaborated that there is a huge misunderstanding of how “conception” (actually, fertilization) even works.

“The confusion here is that people think that the moment of fertilization is when pregnancy starts. They conflate those two things as one … which isn’t true,” she said. “Fertilizations occur many more times than pregnancies occur, because they often don’t wind up in pregnancies. Fertilization happens in the [fallopian] tube. Pregnancy happens in the uterus.” 

Basically, the anti-abortion community stakes the entire basis of its belief system on medically unsound facts. 

“It’s not a medical concept. It’s a concept people maybe come to from a religious frame of mind, but it isn’t medical,” Davis told HuffPost. “People think there is a magic moment when they have sex, that there’s ejaculation, fertilization and pregnancy happening in seconds. It doesn’t happen then.”

It’s a concept people maybe come to from a religious frame of mind, but it isn’t medical. Dr. Anne Davis, Physicians for Reproductive Health

In fact, it’s difficult to even research the topic because so many resources are in biased publications.

TrueLife, LifeMatters and National Right to Life all post countless articles “confirming” that life begins at conception. 

One organization, the American College of Pediatricians, presents itself as a scientific resource claiming that life begins at conception, but it has actually been declared by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group for its anti-LGBT agenda, among its other beliefs. In its mission statement, the organization says that it recognizes “the basic father-mother family unit, within the context of marriage, to be the optimal setting for childhood development.” Its director, Dr. Michelle Cretella, has appeared on Fox News to criticize “transgenderism.”

Such sources are unlikely to provide unbiased medical research. 

But more neutral sources, like Davis and the medical community at large, are rightly not interested in arguing about the moment “life” starts. Davis told HuffPost that Americans, a majority of whom support the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, “are being hijacked by a tiny number of people,” such as Tom Price (who resigned as HHS secretary last month after criticism of his costly use of private planes for official business) and other HHS appointees, who wish to chip away at reproductive health care. Including this language in the strategic plan, Davis said, “is setting the stage for turning things back, coming up with these justifications for refusing to cover” reproductive health care.

“People who wish to restrict access are trying to take non-medical concepts and attach them to medical things, and patients and doctors live with the consequences.” 

The Department of Health and Human Services is accepting comments on the draft until Oct. 27. 



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