The Handmaid's Tale: Fact or Fiction?

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This morning, I heard an astonishing interview on WNYC that discussed a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) draft document that was just leaked. This document proposes to redefine nearly all forms of birth control, especially birth control pills, as a form of abortion and allows any federal grant recipient to obstruct a woman's access to contraception [PDF]. Considering that roughly half of all American women use birth control pills, I think this is a shocking proposal that, if enacted, will change modern American society as we know it.

Currently, the federal government accepts the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' definition of pregnancy as beginning at implantation. However, the HHS proposes to reject that definition -- provided by medical experts -- and to change the federal definition of pregancy to conform with public polling data, as stated in the "Definitions" section of the proposal;

Abortion: An abortion is the termination of a pregnancy. There are two commonly held views on the question of when a pregnancy begins. Some consider a pregnancy to begin at conception (that is, the fertilization of the egg by the sperm), while others consider it to begin with implantation (when the embryo implants in the lining of the uterus). A 2001 Zogby International American Values poll revealed that 49% of Americans believe that human life begins at conception. Presumably many who hold this belief think that any action that destroys human life after conception is the termination of a pregnancy, and so would be included in their definition of the term "abortion." Those who believe pregnancy begins at implantation believe the term "abortion" only includes the destruction of a human being after it has implanted in the lining of the uterus.

And then they propose;

[T]he Department proposes to define abortion as "any of the various procedures - including the prescription 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."

I find it astonishing that the federal government could regulate health care and reproductive choices based on a popularity contest!

Since it is impossible to determine whether an egg has been fertilized, this means that a woman can never prove that she is not pregnant. As a result, it will be legal to block women's access to a tremendous variety of health services, treatments and medications under the guise that they "might possibly cause abortion." Not only that, but this will shut down access to family planning, will remove contraceptive equity from health insurance plans, and will allow pharmacists to refuse to fill women's birth control prescriptions. Further, this also blocks rape survivors from being provided with emergency contraception to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

This HHS proposal will penalize the more than 500,000 medical institutions that rely on federal medicaid funds, and even entire states, if even one woman is provided with birth control pills or access to medical treatments, such as treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, that might potentially cause "abortion" to occur.

So the personal ideology, regardless of how nutty or punitive it is, of a small vocal minority of people has greater social value than the life of any individual woman who is seeking essential medical care, whether it is contraceptives or it is treatment for a life-threatening illness that has nothing to do with pregnancy. Need I point out that medical professionals have a responsibility to their patients, and if they are unable to meet those responsibilities, they shouldn't take the job.

So this is becoming a country where personal freedoms are being destroyed so as to impose a small group's religious beliefs on the rest of society, transforming American into a repressive religious regime, and robbing millions of women of control over their own bodies. Oh, but why stop there? Why not outlaw all medical care? After all, if everything is "god's will" anyway, then no one has any right whatsoever to prevent their deaths or to alleviate their suffering, even if their suffering or death is preventable through medical intervention.

I wonder how long it will be before it is illegal for a woman not to be pregnant?


More like this

Not only are they defining human life on the basis of polling data, by even the data they quote they are going with the minority opinion.

I think GW will try to rush this out, to get his last jabs at destroying this country before he is forced to relinquish the throne. I think he honestly believes that the more people hate you, the more right you are (that assumes that he is actually capable of realizing that people don't like him, which is problematic). I guess we need to see if our congress-critters have any spine left.

Evangelicals' biggest problem is that they forget that they are a minority, at least in terms of the wackier views they hold. The reason they quit crying about divorce (arguably much more harmful than same sex marriage could ever be) is that half of their constituency is divorced. I suspect the same kind of thing can happen here.

My sister belongs to a wacky church, and they had a speaker who said words to the effect that they were being criticized in their anti-abortion stance as being opposed to all forms of birth control. He said something like "well we are opposed to all forms of birth control" and was met by blank stares. Even these evangelicals weren't quite that crazy.

Opposition to birth control isn't exactly outlier opinion for Catholics: it's official church doctrine. ANY form of birth control is a sin that you must confess and repent. It's why the church so vehemently opposes the use of condoms to combat AIDS in Africa.

You gota wonder if these bitter people got laid occasionally if they would be so intent on stopping others. And don't kid yourselves; this is not about reproduction, it's about sex.

Those poll numbers sound ridiculously high to me (mind you, I'm in the UK). I wonder how the question was worded? I had a quick look at the Zogby website but all I found was self-congratulation and pop-up ads...

By Charlotte (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Considering that nearly half of all Americans use birth control pills,...

*does quick calculation in head* You have some strange men over there. Well, at least they aren't pregnant. Can you imagine the whinging if they were?

"...that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth" Note how they are referring to fertilized eggs as if they are already fully formed humans, they did it twice just in the parts quoted. I think that reveals a lot about their prior prejudices and what religious dogmas they're really basing the policy on.

You gota wonder if these bitter people got laid occasionally if they would be so intent on stopping others.

Uh, there are endless counter examples. Consider Ted Haggard. He made plenty of visits to homosexual prostitutes - but did he stop attacking gays? No. Jimmy Baker - same story. The list goes on and on.

I don't think it would be at all difficult to phrase a poll to give that sort of result. "Should an employee be required to perform tasks that are against their moral principles?" would probably do the trick.

I think that if one asked whether pharmacists "should be required to fill prescriptions even if they have religious objections to the treatment" you'd get a rather different answer.

It's very difficult to actually compel someone to do something. If some doctor, pharmacist or whatever doesn't want to give someone contraceptives they don't have to. But if it's genuinely a moral issue, they should have the courage to face the consequences of their (in)action and accept their impending dismissal.

Rev. Matt, it's not Catholics that are opposed to birth control, it's the Vatican, and there are many Catholics such as myself that draw a very big distinction between the two. In the U.S. and Europe, many if not most Catholics are of the opinion that there are some matters that are between ourselves, our partners and God, and childbearing (read: sex) is #1 on that list. The pope doesn't get a vote.

...if it's genuinely a moral issue, they should have the courage to face the consequences of their (in)action and accept their impending dismissal.

Exactly. Let's put it another way; if I became a soldier but refused to handle weapons or support violence in any way, would they be lining up to defend my moral conscience?

Holy crap. This is big news. Thank you for posting; will promulgate.

I have a book at home that explains in detail, with pictures and instructions, how to perform an emergency vaginal abortion. STRICTLY for emergencies, I PROMISE you. It's actually in my disaster supply closet. I'm not a doctor, but I'm careful and gentle and fairly knowledgeable and perform well under pressure, I would never take the considerable risk except to save someone's life, and most of all, unlike many women, I know such a thing is possible.

But now, I'm guessing, is the time to secure the necessary equipment (specula, etc.) without raising too, too many eyebrows... I go to a large clinic, not a specific doctor, so I do not have a close enough relationship with a doctor I would trust to keep things quiet. Do you folks have any good advice for me?

By speedwell (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

and they said i was daft to propose capital punishment for stupidity...sigh.

of course i'd have wiped out half of america it seems...

I absolutely agree that declaring nearly all forms of contraception to be abortion is a last-ditch attempt by the Religious Reich to leave it's footprint on the neck of America. And they should be opposed loudly, vigoursly, and often.

However, I don't believe for a moment that Big Pharma is going to let this happen. When push comes to shove, money is the deciding factor in politics, and if you think the pharmaceutical companies are going to stand meekly by while birth control - meaning many of the products produced by the pharmaceutical companies - is criminalized, then you need to give it another think. Money trumps all. The Big Pharma lobbyists with drown these idiots.

By Brenda Nelson (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Sigh, let us hope so.

What i see happening is that some small part of this will squeeze through and leave things open to change later.

This needs to be sqashed completely and utterly with no maybe's or moderation.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Ack! This is very, very Handmaid's Tale, and frankly, it is terrifying. Whom do I write to protest? My senator? HHS? I might be in the kitchen, but I am keeping my shoes on!

By JustaTech (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Uh...has anyone stopped to consider that hormonal forms of birth control stop ovulation, but do not have any effect on implantation? There were a bunch of animal studies just a few years ago, just to put the 'BC stops implantation' myth to rest. I hope that someone else will be curious enough to Google it.

Tree, these fundie wackos would never let the facts get in the way of their opinions.

My father's mother died from an infection she got having an illegal abortion. I too think that Big Pharma won't let this happen, but I think we need to take action to make absolutely sure this gets squashed. Along with contacting my senator or congressmen, I think a note to HHS and the AMA may be in order.

By Grrrl Power (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

OK, Department of Health and Human Services will attempt to redefine the definition of abortion. This is not a constitutional amendment. Why can't this Christinsanity nonsense be unredefined after Jan. 20, 2009 ?

By calgnostic (not verified) on 02 Aug 2008 #permalink

Would this proposal prevent a woman having a hysterectomy if her womb was cancerous and there was a possibility of a fertilised egg being around?

From a first reading it seems that it could.

I hope your congress critters, especially the dimocrat ones manage to grow spines and stop this.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 02 Aug 2008 #permalink

This would end any in vitro fertility assistance.

Come to think of it, this would make it illegal to flush the toilet after menstruation instead of putting the toilet bowl on life support, just in case a fertilized egg had naturally failed implantation.

As though every fertilized egg could develop into a human being.

If we have to put the toilet on life-support, maybe I can finally get my plumbing fixed. And on the gov'mint's dime too!


It occurred to me too. I don't see how the rule can be applied to anti-ovulation, spermicidal or barrier methods since these are regarded to not harm an existing pregnancy. To that extent I think the reaction to the proposed rule is alarmist.

The problem is, those methods aren't relevant in the case of rape, incest, or any after the fact use. If we are forcing rape victims to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, we are picking and choosing one set of religious scruples above another. Keep the government out I say and let medical and pharmaceutical professions regulate themselves. When they do, their ethics tend to require them to put patient needs ahead of personal belief or preference.

OK, Department of Health and Human Services will attempt to redefine the definition of abortion. This is not a constitutional amendment. Why can't this Christinsanity nonsense be unredefined after Jan. 20, 2009 ?

Because that's 7 months of damage they can do before it's unredefined?

If we are forcing rape victims to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, we are picking and choosing one set of religious scruples above another.

I am aware of no major religion that considers rape victims' interests important, except when that consideration has been beaten into it by popular sentiment following the enlightenment and the women's rights movement. What you presumably mean is "pitting religious dogma against humanist morality."

Look at what this small group of Evangelicals brought us: George W.(Dufus)Bush. Are they prepared to take care of all of these unwanted children?