ThinkProgress and the US HHS Strategic Plan: Abortion, Contraception and Progressivism

ThinkProgress published an article, penned by Amanda Michelle Gomez, this month entitled “Trump’s Health Department declares that life begins at conception”. It was written in response to a drafted document by the Department of Health and Human Services, pushed forward by the Trump administration, outlining the department’s “priorities”. In one line, the draft mentions that life “begins at conception”. And so a social progressive website, and a host of others, gives a response.

Now, I’d like to respond to their response only because I would like to highlight the inconsistencies and fallacious nature of the Progressive worldview, the worldview that affirms absolute freedom, total equality and all-inclusiveness but is unwilling to define what all of these things mean. Moreover, I’d like to touch on the issue of contraception as it is, I think, relevant to discuss as a moral issue related to that of abortion and it is a problem brought up by Gomez repeatedly in her article. My goal is to examine some of the content of the draft document and engage with the ideas presented by Gomez on abortion, contraception and the progressive counter-perspective.

The HHS Draft and its Meaning

First let’s establish the actual purpose of the document which is entitled the “HHS Strategic Plan, FY 2018-2022”. It will serve to re-establish the goals and priorities of the department over the coming term. Here is part of its introductory statements:

HHS_draft_oct17_beginsatconception

Now, the line popping out of the screen is 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.”

The Strategic Plan has for its mission five goals:

HHS_draft_oct17_goals

I don’t wish to give a full summary of each point. It is presenting the means by which the department will be achieving the Trump administration’s health care vision, I think. It’s really a giant list of to-do’s. A lot of it isn’t immediately interesting to me. Rather, I’d like to point out the key statements in the document relevant to the greater discussion on abortion rights and such.

Within the first point, there is already an attempt being made to be inclusive of faith-based groups in the plan itself. The line “including faith-based and community organizations” is repeated consistently throughout. So, right away, this will nudge some the wrong way, others in a positive direction.

The second goal clarifies what exactly is intended on being protected on an individual level from a health care perspective. Among other things, objective 2.1 states the following:

HHS_draft_oct17_2.1

Moreover, under Goal 3, there is stated interest in increasing safety net programs, support for families and child development, and reducing service disparities.  Goal 4 promotes scientific research for the betterment of health care services.

Under objective 4.3, among other things to do with the breadth of research to be conducted, it is stated:

HHS_draft_oct17_4.3

This is really a reiteration, though with more a specific application, that humans, from conception, are to be protected.

Goal 5 was to do with guiding human management and general financial responsibility.

Most of the document was kept relatively broad and with limited specificity. Most of it, by intention at least, agreeably sought the promotion of education, leveraging of modern technology and the protection of vulnerable people. There is little to no explicit pro-life (or “anti-choice”) jargon in the actual content of the document aside from the one line in the introduction and in 4.3. Now, this is important because, from reading Ms. Gomez’s article, it would seem like this new draft would be more constructed from pro-life vernacular than it was. The only thing that was explicitly pro-life however were the two stated affirmations of life’s beginning at conception which has been affirmed by science.

The Progressive Thought

The progressive ideology holds a number of things as being of the utmost importance in terms of manufacturing an ideal society in which to live, namely, that human beings be absolutely free, all regarded as equal in every possible sense of the word, and included universally as persons deserving of rights. Now these things, I’m finding, are not often defined.

How free should people be? Absolutely? Are there any foreseeable negative consequences to this?

Is everybody free in every possible way? Including biology, belief and psychology? Are all beliefs equal? Are all genders basically the same? And so on.

How inclusive should the law be of all people?

Now I am pro freedom of speech, religion and that granted by autonomy, possession and privacy rights. I am also hugely in favor of human equality. I also really enjoy inclusivity. But what do all of these things mean?

I don’t believe people should be to do absolutely free to do absolutely anything. Obviously not. And our restriction on human freedom should be based upon moral principle which aims at human flourishing.

I believe all human beings are to be treated equal under the law as persons endowed with basic rights (speech, religion, privacy, possession (to some extent), autonomy, liberty, security and life) but that there are certain distinctions to be made. An adult is not an infant and therefore, in certain ways, under the law and in social terms, they should be treated differently, for example. Therefore, not all human beings are equal in every single way.

I believe in inclusivity. Should children be legally permitted access to pornography? No, I don’t believe so. But I believe everyone should have access to education and work so long as they are contributing citizens, and they should not be held back, by law or otherwise, on the basis of ethnicity, age, religion or some other physical distinction.

The progressive left, I find anyways, often doesn’t define these things in responsive articles like the ThinkProgress piece. Moreover, the worldview as a whole doesn’t hold up because the faulty idea of Progress, embedded in the “progressive” label, is built on the premise that human beings get better and wiser over time and learning from mistakes. Those who don’t learn are on the wrong side of history. Those who do are on the right side. Of course, this seems to make things about some sort of political tribalism where its all about which team wins the long game. The point shouldn’t be about which team you’re on. The point should be about which team gets it right. Our end shouldn’t be to not be like our ancestors. The end should be to uphold truth in all matters of life, ethics, government and religious inquiry. But not only this much is true, and possibly many progressives would agree with me, history has never shown ultimate human progression towards moral betterment on any macroscopic level. It has only shown cyclical errors on repeat. Technology has not helped us. Economics have not helped us. Science has not helped us.

From a Christian theological point of view, progressivism has no stay in the Church. It can’t. And the reason being is it is, I think, a fundamental denial of the doctrine of Man’s Sinful Nature. Moreover, it is an anthropocentric doctrine that asserts the necessity of human activity in personal improvement rather than the grace of God continuously acting, by the work of the Holy Spirit, in our lives. Grace is suspended while the hope of the world for an illusion of a prize called global peace is placed in the hands of fallen men and women. The worldview, thirdly, is by and large an intrinsically materialistic-naturalistic one which generally sidelines the role of the Church in society and the inclusion of the faithful in dialogue. It tends to deny any holding a presuppositional stance that God exists and all good must come from Him.

The ThinkProgress Article

Gomez writes:

The Trump administration has repeatedly delivered on a campaign promise to the religious right that he’d prioritize a faith-based, anti-choice agenda. The latest evidence comes in the form of the draft strategic plan released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which defines life as “beginning at conception.”

Trump is not my president nor is he my leader in politics, religion or ideas. Sources could have certainly been cited for his supposed prioritization of “faith-based, anti-choice” agendas. If he has used, in fact, those explicit terms “anti-choice”, then I would only state that Trump isn’t an exemplary model of pro-life advocacy even on a political level. Not for me.

The common equalizing of “pro-life” and “anti-choice” also bugs me to no end. It’s as if I were to say pro-choice people are pro-murder. It’s a straw-man.

While the Strategy Plan does go at lengths to include faith-based organizations, I’m not so sure that that the agenda can accurately be assumed to be faith-based. Rather, to me, its more likely that he is trying to include people in the discussion, religious or non-religious, that have “historically” contributed to the improvement of health care services, as was stated in the document.

She continues:

The draft was released two weeks ago, before HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned, and it outlines the priorities of the agency and its governing offices. As Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, pointed out, HHS went beyond the normative promise from conservatives to promote faith-based partnerships, and declared that the life of each human begins at conception.

So, the HHS went beyond promoting faith-based partnerships to declaring a stance on human life’s origin.

It’s been a while now that either this view has been snuffed out of American law (and Canadian law) or been relatively silenced. I can see why the left might be rattled by the statements being made by the HHS but what should be considered is that if you’re pro-life, this is a step in reversing what has been legalized for a long time now. Decades. The reason I would think that the affirmation of life’s origin at conception is included explicitly is because the government wants to take a real stance and counteract the view that personhood gradually evolves, the life appears at birth, which are views that have been affirmed by the law since abortion legalization via Roe v. Wade. The HHS is making a purposeful truth statement.

“It’s concerning because HHS isn’t just a theoretical group that writes think pieces no one reads,” Dr. Gunter told ThinkProgress. “We are replacing science with beliefs.”

This quotation comes with a hint of irony because this article by Gomez includes zero scientific discussion beyond source citation and is composed exclusively of beliefs. Gomez believes women have the right to abort their baby. I believe they don’t. And any government that wants to form policy, whether conservative or not, must do so on matters of principle and belief and not solely on science. After all, any assertion of equality, women’s rights and so on don’t come solely predicated on science. That’s absurd. These are beliefs and moral assertions.

This, I think, gets back to the materialistic nature of the progressive worldview. It assumes all moral assertions must have their basis in scientific discovery which is preposterous. Morality cannot be just a social construction. Or an evolved faculty of human cognition. Not if it is objective, anyways. And science doesn’t yield moral values because they are non-material, non-physical. This assumption becomes painfully obvious when people, like Trump, say life begins at conception, or anything else that progressives disagree with — it  is now a matter of “belief”, not science. This is an easy way to dodge the argument.

And there is science to demonstrate the life of a newly conceived human being. But science hasn’t and won’t settle anything. Our conclusions on the morality of abortion must necessarily transcend scientific theory and exert from the realm of belief about human value (if human value exists at all). Human equality is not a scientific statement. Human rights is not scientific theory. These are beliefs reflective of our worldview. And it is from a certain worldview that governments, and the HHS, will write policy, laws and strategies aiming to protect people. It is the people in question that they are contending.

Dr. Gunter’s statements sound confused and panicked with the usage of these mis-defined, misunderstood terms bordering an anti-faith sentiment.

Even guidance issued under President George W. Bush’s secretary was tamer, as it prioritized faith-based partnerships but did not use such overt anti-abortion language.

Again, the HHS is taking a real stance in disagreement. What does one expect?

This so-called anti-abortion language, one must realize (if you’re pro-choice), is not an attempt to restrict the freedom of people under authority but rather is an attempt to responsibly protect people (who are truly viewed and defined as people) who are entirely dependent upon their authority figure for survival. The government has a job to protect all people.

“This is a politically motivated change,” said Guttmacher Institute’s Elizabeth Nash. “This is not being brought up by public health officials. The medical consensus is a woman is considered pregnant during the implantation of a fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus.”

This is quite possibly a politically motivated change. I don’t deny that Trump is a strategist and competitor at every stage and it is hard to discern which, if any, of his beliefs are sincere. For this reason, I am not pro-Trump. I am however inclining my ear to any proposed strategy that will protect previously or currently oppressed people.

Nevertheless, Nash, and Gomez, are responding with more “science”.

The language used in the recent HHS draft — which is open for public comments until October 27 — is largely seen in fetal personhood bills, which try to establish that life begins at conception and declare that the state constitution does not protect the right to abortion, said Nash who tracks state policies. These bills have not been successful, and voters from both progressive states like Colorado and conservative states like North Dakota and Mississippi rejected them. (There is a ballot initiative in Alabama this November.) Now, HHS is championing the rhetoric that abortion opponents have used for decades.

If life begins at conception, then a fetus from conception is a living human being. If we believe all human beings are persons, then the fetus is a person from conception. The logic isn’t hard. The obvious moral implication of this logic is that abortion is wrong. It has to be. No person has a right to kill another. No matter the circumstances. So why wouldn’t a person, or government, upon recognizing the life of a newly conceived individual propose to strike down abortion rights? One can call it rhetoric all they want. But what if the insistence on calling logic rhetoric without fair or consistent interaction with the logic exposes a refusal to accept truth? Or, at least, maybe, a dishonest approach to criticism?

Another piece of this, says Nash, is that fetal personhood extends beyond abortion rights and influences contraception access. “How would this interplay with programs designed to support contraception services?” asked Nash. She and Gunter speculated whether Medicaid and Title X funding that covers contraception would be called into question.

Of course fetal personhood affects contraception because the fetus, if a person, has rights.

My view is that contraception to prevent pregnancy (e.g. condoms) is morally acceptable and should be accessible, but any form of contraception that terminates the life of the embryo or fetus is morally unacceptable. It’s wrong to use, again, because it means killing an innocent human being deserving of rights.

The HHS directive should come as no surprise. The Trump administration’s targeting of contraception access has gone further than just mere guidance. On Friday, the administration rolled back an Obama-era requirement for employers to include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. The new rule cited doubtful science, as pointed out by several health writers. Like the HHS directive, the rule ignored science-based evidence that improved contraceptive use correlates with a decline in overall adolescent pregnancy and instead cited research largely argued by the religious right. Also on Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memorandum on religious liberty protections for all executive departments and agencies, which could influence LGTBQ rights in addition to reproductive rights.

So, again, I am not an advocate of Trump’s decision-making. Regardless of the science, though, the correlation mentioned is actually irrelevant. Contraceptive use is fine so long as it doesn’t kill people. If teens are accidentally killing people by the use of contraception, then we have a problem. (I am not saying the teen should be punished in this case.) If we’re pitting saving lives against reducing teen pregnancy, saving lives is more important.

None of this should come as any surprise, as Trump made his anti-choice stance clear throughout the campaign, when he called for doctors who provide abortions to be punished (a comment he later walked back) and coalesced around pro-life members like Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. His vice president is Mike Pence, who has fought against reproductive health activists for years. He has also packed his health agency with anti-choice employees like Matthew Bowman, a former lawyer to the Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, and Theresa Manning, former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee.

Again, there’s this over-used attack-word “anti-choice” employed not only to characterize Trump but Mike Pence and their employees. They are anti-choice. They are anti-autonomy. Pro-life and anti-choice to do not represent the same thing. Pro-lifers do not stand to take away Womankind’s ability to make free decisions. They stand to ensure that all people are protected and that all human rights violations are held accountable. Not all free decisions, after all, are good and beneficial for society.

While I disagree with Trump on many things, let’s take so far the logic I’ve presented with all of its implications. If abortion is the unjust act of killing an innocent human being (this isn’t rhetoric, just defining terms and following the logic consistently), then justice would mean that someone must be held accountable. I don’t believe women should (necessarily) be punished, and I’m not entirely sure of doctor’s should be, but if an individual deliberately brings harm to another person knowing full well what they are doing and whom they are doing it to, then justice means they are held accountable.

Religious affiliated organization have always partnered with federal government government, but every religion should be treated the same — and in this case, only the most conservative interpretations seem to be heard. Take fetal personhood: many religious traditions are not in agreement about when life begins. Even denominations within Christianity do not believe abortion is akin to murder.

This is all sort of irrelevant. What this paragraph further solidifies, in my mind, is that many progressives seem to view the pro-life movement as a homogeneously religious movement. The pro-life movement, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, is primarily a human rights movement. But, still so many on the left remain convinced the whole pro-life agenda is a faith-based, religious belief system that fundamentally rejects science and reason.

Of course, not all religious groups agree that life begins at conception. And there is an entire cluster of liberal Christians who somehow disagree as well. But that’s not the point. The point is that if the truth about the pre-born child is that he or she is a living human being from conception, then he or she deserves the same rights as you and I. And this person needs protection.

If Trump’s approach to pro-life policy necessitates a religious stance, then he is most certainly doing it wrong. If he were to avoid the trappings of the term “faith-based” (if that really is his approach) and rather frame it as a human rights issue, it would serve better to clear up these misunderstandings, I think.

For now, the influence of these interpretations of faith in the administration aren’t going anywhere beyond the rollback of the contraception mandate. Many within the religious right told The Hill they hope that whoever replaces Price will apply the Weldon amendment, the so-called conscience clause protecting entities that decline to give abortions because of religious objections. The Obama administration neglected to enforce the so-called “right of conscience.”

Hopefully, if abortion isn’t banned, then the “right of Conscience” will be upheld in order to preserve the rights to religious liberty and expression and one’s freedom to simply follow what their conscience instructs.

The movement to end abortion never has been a grand conspiratorial effort to constrain and limit the freedom and happiness of women and families. Rather, it has always been an attempt to uphold the values of fundamental human dignity, justice and compassion for not only the child but the mother also. If any person does not uphold these, they are not part of the movement. They are acting counter to it. And as I’ve affirmed before, a true pro-life apologetic must take into sincere consideration the plight of ill, single, abandoned and impoverished mothers. Abortion is no solution. It is a false promise that ends in a life lost. There are other, better solutions available.

A final word is this: If there is a government, an organization, a group, a company or a single person in the world that is willing to propose and execute a plan to end abortion, which can appropriately and rightly be called murder because of the terms defined and logic followed, then I do not hesitate to incline my ear though I may question the author.

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