Proposed Regs Only the Latest Attempt to Redefine Abortion

Amie Newman

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has drafted regulations that would re-define contraception as abortion and prioritize "religiously held objections" to providing contraception over women's rights and health.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has drafted regulations that would re-define contraception as abortion and prioritize "religiously held objections" to providing contraception over women’s rights and health. As Cristina Page has noted, re-defining contraception in the way the proposal suggests, would "protect [anti-contraception] extremists under the Weldon and Church amendments," amendments that allow health care providers – entities and individuals – that are (or work for) federally funded grantees to "opt out" of providing abortion care if it runs counter to their religious beliefs. The proposed regulation goes even farther – though applies still, and only, to federally funded health care entities and their employees (including Medicaid and Title X programs).

Under the regulation changes, the federal government would redefine abortion as:

any of the various procedures – including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action – that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.

In suggesting that a fertilized, unimplanted egg can be aborted, the regulations espouse a new, medically unsound definition of pregnancy. (The American Medical Association and the American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists define pregnancy as occurring after implantation of an egg, but the regulations offer other definitions equal consideration – including medical dictionaries such as "Stedman’s Medical Dictionary" that defines pregnancy as the "state of a female after conception and until the termination of the gestation.")

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In other words, this regulation would allow for a multiple-choice answer to the question, what is an abortion?

"The Department proposes, then, to allow individuals and institutions to adhere to their own views and adopt a definition of abortion that encompasses both views of abortion."

For example, if a health care provider for a Medicaid-funded family planning clinic opposed birth control and abortion, this person would be allowed to share his or her own view of when pregnancy begins with patients, advise a patient that contraception causes abortion and, under the federal government’s own guidelines, prevent the patient from accessing or obtaining a referral for birth control.

While laws in 16 states ensure that women who are raped and visit a hospital emergency room are offered emergency contraception or information on emergency contraception, the proposed HHS regulation would allow certain hospitals or employees in all states simply to opt-out of providing this crucial women’s health option based on the re-definition of emergency contraception as abortion.

Thirteen states already have laws on the books allowing certain kinds of health care providers to refuse to provide contraception and contraceptive services.

How Did We End Up Here?

The latest last-ditch, anti-women’s rights and health effort by the Bush administration to twist, yank and mutilate medical definitions in service to ideological policies that serve no one except his most extremist of anti-choice supporters are crystal clear proof that he, along with his entire administration, are utterly divorced from the way most Americans live their lives.

One hardly needs reminding at this point, William Saletan aside, that the overarching anti-choice ideology that reproductive health advocates have been railing against for many years now is not only the criminalization of abortion – that is but one piece of a puzzle that has been assembled for years now – but the restriction and criminalization of all forms of contraception as well.  

It’s a position that anti-choice leaders have taken to their detriment, as their agendas become more and more extremist. Nine out of ten Americans support public funding for contraception for those who cannot afford it. Most Americans would like to see equity in insurance coverage – meaning that, as Carly Fiorina says, women should have a "choice" to obtain health insurance that offers coverage of contraception, as men do when given the option of having their insurance cover Viagra.

Ninety-eight percent of American women who have ever had intercourse have used at least some form of contraception – meaning almost all American women between 15 and 44 years old.

While the Bush administration is busy finding ways to help federally funded health care providers stymie access to birth control, to allow insurance carriers to ditch coverage for contraception, and to allow employees of federally-funded programs not to provide contraception that they decide is abortion, federal employees are guaranteed insurance coverage for contraception.

This most latest move by HHS will not just re-define the word "abortion" in order to offer greater ability to restrict and deny health services but will do nothing less than create a governmental definition of when life begins.

Over the past year, we have seen more desperate and more telling attempts by the anti-choice minority to ride a backwards train to pre-Griswold times – the era before married couples were given the right to contraceptive access. The Pill Kills campaign attempted to persuade Americans in May of this year that the birth control pill, the method more American women – and couples – use than any other, is actually an abortive medication.

The campaign actually compared using oral contraceptives to poisoning your neighbor, and definitively states that taking the pill "murders" babies. While one may find that language extremist, the belief that contraception is murder is echoed by organizations like American Life League, Pharmacists for Life, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family and others.

In recent months, "personhood" amendments that would re-define when life begins, have re-emerged in states including Colorado and Montana as ballot initiatives. Colorado’s measure will be on the ballot in November.  Pharmacists, meanwhile, are want to be legally able to refuse to fill prescriptions for women’s birth control and state legislatures are debating bills that would protect them.

The current HHS proposed regulation may seem desperate, but the larger issues it invokes – attacks on the legality of and access to contraception, the expanding definition of legal abortion, greater allowances for religious exemptions from offering women’s health care services, and a governmental definition of "personhood" – not only remain but are being impelled into political discussion as mainstream and politically viable topics. It’s crucial that we get clear answers from our presidential candidates about what women’s reproductive health care access and legal status would look like under each of their administrations. If not, we could be headed for at least four more years of battles like this one started by President Bush.

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