By WV FREE’s Margaret Chapman Pomponio:
We’ve all read reports about those who are up in arms about purported attacks on religious liberty. They decry attempts to force people to betray their beliefs. They want to ensure that the government does not infringe on people’s ability to follow the traditions of their faith.
I wholeheartedly agree that religious liberty is central to our democracy, but the current attempts by the Trump administration to, supposedly, protect religious freedom have the exact opposite effect.
Take the Oct. 6 rollback of birth control access enshrined in the Affordable Care Act. When the federal government says that a person’s boss can refuse to include health coverage in her employer-based health plan for contraception because they do not personally agree with preventing unintended pregnancy, they are imposing their beliefs on her.
Health insurance is meant to cover the care and prescriptions that a person might need so that they can seek the care and services they decide to use in consultation with their health provider, their family and their faith. When politicians create a policy that lets your employer veto the health choices that you make, it is not a policy compromise. It is a compromise of your health and your beliefs.
The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is now going even further in infringing on religious liberty by attempting to enshrine personhood language into federal policy. DHHS just issued its draft strategic plan. It includes a definition of life as “beginning with conception.”
The question of when life begins is a spiritual and religious one that has no place in politics or government. Reasonable people disagree on this question or are just ambivalent. Imposing any one religious point of view violates the religious freedom that is the foundation of our nation.
This new move by DHHS is not only an insulting overreach into the personal and religious question of when life begins, but it would have dramatic implications for the availability of reproductive healthcare.
This definition would effectively create “personhood,” which could result in denying any type of abortion care, including in cases of pregnancy complications or the risk of the mental or physical health of a pregnant woman. We could be talking about full personhood for a fertilized egg, not even in the embryonic phase. But enough biology (who needs science, anyway?). It could take away support or coverage for emergency contraception, which is an important tool to enable people to prevent unintended pregnancy if they face a contraception failure. That means withholding emergency contraception from women who have survived sexual assault and want to be able to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of this violence.
There are also fertility treatments that assist couples who want to build a family that would no longer be supported in federal health programs if this change were to be made. My own family has benefited by assisted reproductive technology and it is unthinkable to me that others could be denied such access because the federal government is subjecting us to its own religio-political agenda.
The question of personhood has come up in multiple legislatures around the country, notwithstanding our own in West Virginia. In each case advocates and health professionals have opposed this move because of the attack on reproductive health care. They also feared that this expanded definition could be used to criminalize pregnant women’s behavior or punish women based on pregnancy outcomes, a development we have seen more and more often in recent years when laws are written or interpreted so that a woman is punished for how a pregnancy turns out.
Can you imagine putting a woman facing a miscarriage in the position of being interrogated? It sounds like the stuff of the television hit series and Margaret Atwood book, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it is already happening. An alarming number of women are being arrested, prosecuted and jailed for losing their pregnancies or as a result of complications. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women identified more than 375 arrests since 2005. This new policy could make it that much worse.
We should be working to eliminate barriers to health care and support women and families in our community and across America, rather than pushing policies that subvert the ability to follow our own beliefs and that are likely to have dangerous consequences. It is not the place of any elected or appointed official to define human life for someone else or to decide what kind of health care a person should be able to obtain. These are personal decisions that we need to make for ourselves.
Freedom and respect for differing opinions and religious beliefs is a core American value. We should not stand silently by as this administration advances policies that reject this important principle. Thankfully, we live in a participatory democracy. This rule is open for public comment until Oct. 27. You can be sure I’ll be making my voice heard. I hope you will, too.