WASHINGTON — A draft of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ strategic plan for the next four years indicates that the federal agency is looking to bolster health care services for Americans at every stage of life, beginning at the moment of conception.

The document also prioritizes religious freedom as an important principle for crafting public-health policy as well as department guidelines and procedures, marking a significant shift from President Barack Obama’s administration in which HHS promulgated its contraceptive mandate.

Rather than being mere words on paper, the draft HHS strategic plan for 2018-2022 indicates the pro-life direction that President Donald Trump’s administration intends to take federal public-health policy and related procedures, pro-life experts told the Register.

“This could have far-reaching consequences,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. Mancini, who previously worked for the office of the secretary in HHS, told the Register that the agency’s strategic plan has a “pretty robust impact” in terms of policy direction.

“This is why elections matter,” Mancini said. “There is so much policy handled at the level of the department.”

Clarke Forsythe, the senior counsel for Americans United for Life, told the Register that the strategic plan’s language that life begins at conception is a “great development” that is scientifically and medically accurate. He added that 38 states have fetal-homicide laws. At least 23 of them have fetal-homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy.

“I don’t know if it would have any obvious legal impact,” Forsythe said. “But I think it’s a significant organizational statement and a significant political statement.”

A spokeswoman for HHS told the Register on background that the strategic plan is still a draft and that the agency is seeking public comment to assist in refining and strengthening the plan. The spokeswoman said the public can submit comments through Oct. 27.

Ed Giganti, spokesman for the Catholic Health Association of the United States, told the Register in an email that “CHA is clearly concerned with life at all stages, and we will be watching how HHS (and all policymakers) live out the commitment to the dignity of life at all stages.”

 

Strategic Goals

Every four years, HHS updates its strategic plan, which describes the federal agency’s work to address complex, multifaceted and evolving health and human services issues. The strategic plan defines HHS’ mission, goals and the means by which the agency measures its progress in addressing specific national problems over a four-year period.

The new outlook at HHS is evident in the draft plan’s first strategic goal, which states the agency’s dedication to reforming, strengthening and modernizing the nation’s health care system. The agency says its ultimate goal is “to improve health care outcomes for all people, including the unborn, across health care settings.”

In the third strategic goal, which says HHS works to “strengthen the economic and social well-being of Americans across the life span,” HHS not only says that life begins at conception, but that it should end at natural death.

The fourth strategic goal — on HHS’ aim to provide sound, sustained advances in the sciences — stipulates that the agency’s scientific research will be conducted consistent “with the understanding that human subjects’ protection applies to all human beings from conception to natural death.”

Mancini said the fourth strategic goal, as currently written, could impact anything related to embryonic and stem-cell research carried out by member agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

“There are a lot of studies and therapies done right now that don’t protect the child from conception or fertilization,” said Mancini, who underscored the significance of the first strategic goal by contrasting HHS policies during the Obama administration, during which she said “the inherent dignity of the person from conception wasn’t something that was taken into consideration in broad health care reform.”

 

Obamacare and Religious Liberty

The 2010 Affordable Care Act — popularly known as “Obamacare” — authorized the HHS secretary to draft certain policies related to public-health services. Under the Obama administration, HHS consulted with the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, before releasing guidelines in 2011 that required all new health insurance plans to cover women’s preventive services, which included breast-feeding support, domestic violence screening and contraception without charging copays or a deductible.

“Unfortunately, they included drugs and devices that could be destructive of life, instead of protective of life, and they also impeded people’s religious beliefs in terms of contraception,” Mancini said.

After six years of legal fights that included hundreds of lawsuits and five trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Trump administration Oct. 6 announced that it was expanding the contraceptive mandate’s religious exemption to include religious nonprofits and private employers.

The draft HHS strategic plan highlights the May 4 executive order that President Trump signed to promote free speech and religious liberty. The strategic plan states HHS’ intent to promote equal and nondiscriminatory participation by faith-based groups in HHS-funded or conducted activities, as well as to remove any barriers preventing faith-based organizations from working with HHS.

The proposed changes at HHS have angered pro-abortion groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, which labeled the draft plan’s policy implications as “extremist.” The Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual-rights advocacy group, issued an alert criticizing the new plan for erasing “all mentions of the LGBTQ population and their unique health needs.”

 

U.S. Bishops’ Perspective

On Oct. 25, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted written comments on the draft strategic plan to HHS. In the 11-page document, the bishops’ conference commended the plan for “recognizing and endorsing the need to promote the health of human beings at every stage of life, beginning at conception.” 

The bishops’ conference also said the plan recognizes the need to reduce burdens on the free exercise of religion and to promote the equal participation of individuals and faith-based organizations in the delivery of health care and other services and in HHS programs. The bishops’ conference also underscored the draft plan’s stated support of implementing programs to protect and strengthen marriage and family. 

“These are commendable and important goals. We support them and encourage their adoption in the final version of HHS’ strategic plan,” said the USCCB attorneys who wrote and signed the document.

As for the plan’s aspects that could impact the poor, the bishops’ conference said the plan provides “some innovative approaches to addressing underserved populations,” but added that the document would benefit from additional clarity on care for those in poverty, especially in ensuring the integrity and reach of existing poverty-related programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare.

Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that the bishops applaud the many references addressing the health concerns and issues of human beings at every stage of life, beginning at conception.

“As it should be in recognizing the objective reality of human life from its very beginning,” said Schleppenbach, adding that there are “plenty of rationales,” including science and basic reason, to recognize that life begins at conception.

 

Scientific Basis

Physicians for Reproductive Health, an organization that works to increase access to contraception and abortion, has criticized the draft plan’s statement that life begins at conception, telling media outlets that the statement “is not a medical concept.”

But Mancini of the March for Life and Clarke of Americans United for Life noted various scientific studies exist that they said prove that a new human life begins at the moment of conception.

“Given the medical protection that already exists for developing human beings from conception, given the legal protection from conception across the states, it’s appropriate for HHS to update its mission statement and understand that its scope of work extends to human beings from the earliest stages of development,” Forsythe said.

Science, Mancini added, is on the side of life.

Said Mancini, “It shouldn’t be politicized, but at least we can take some comfort at it happening less during this administration.”

 

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.