Optimistic but cautious: Is the HHS Strategic Plan recognizing life?

human sperm and egg cell 3d illustrationAbout a month ago, the government released its draft for 2018-2022’s Health and Human Services (HHS) Strategic Plan. As reported by several pro-life news organizations, the draft seemed optimistically pro-life. The National Catholic Register did a pretty good job covering the possibilities in their article on the subject. Commonly cited is the draft’s repeated use of the language, “protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception,” and even its stated goal to “to improve health care outcomes for all people, including the unborn, across health care settings.”

While it does seem that the draft is hopefully prolife, there is one giant nuance:

In 1959, the year during which the first version of the pill was under review by the FDA, the medical definition of “conception” was quietly shifted from meaning “fertilization of sperm and egg” to mean “implantation of the zygote in the uterine wall.”

These are wildly different.

The background

Up until 1959, the word “conception” meant the same thing in lay and medical communities: fertilization, the joining of the sperm and egg. This is supported by copious science and, not least of all, common sense. After all, the moment of fertilization results in a totally new genetic code, often a totally new sex, and sometimes even a new blood type (although the actual blood won’t be produced for a few weeks). This fusion between gametes (sex cells) is logically the creation of a new human.

Throughout the 1950’s, Margaret Sanger was working closely with researchers to establish the necessary technology to create what would ultimately become “the pill,” the world’s first female oral contraceptive. The pill, called Enovid, was submitted to the FDA for review and by 1957 was approved to “regulate menstruation,” but its use as a contraceptive was still pending.[1]

At a Planned Parenthood symposium in 1959, Sanger, among others, discussed two primary roadblocks to contraceptive approval: first, the public largely recognized the pill to be an abortifacient since it interfered with implantation of an already fertilized egg into the uterine wall, so the pill was experiencing social pushback; and secondly, a pill couldn’t be marketed as “that which prevents conception,” if it didn’t actually interfere until after conception already took place.

It was at this symposium that Swedish Dr. Bent Boving suggested a simple solution explaining, “the social advantage of [the pill] being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend upon something so simple as a prudent habit of speech” (emphasis mine).[2] That is, if the definition of “conception” could be shifted as little as a few days — from fertilization to implantation — then they could claim that the pill doesn’t interfere after conception, but rather prevents “conception” entirely.

The FDA approved Enovid the next year. Within 5 years, after the financial success of the pill, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists “repositioned” their definition of “conception” to match Boving’s.[3][4]

What it means for the draft

There is some language in the proposed HHS draft pointing to concern for life at fertilization, but after 60 years of functioning under the definition of conception as implantation, it’s difficult to know what, exactly, the HHS means by their use of the term “conception.” Is their language choice of “fertilization” a poor linguistic choice that will be corrected in the plan’s final form, or is HHS really is working to return the definition of “conception” to its scientifically accurate meaning of fertilization?

Although this thoroughly unscientific and clearly profit-oriented shift is known today, many organizations — mutually relying on one another — stand by the newer and arguably inaccurate definition. Perhaps most notably (and most powerful in the world of reproductive research and legislation), Planned Parenthood’s own research arm, the Guttmacher Institute (GI) relies on circular logic to affirm the assertion made by its founder. As recently as a 2005 article, GI states, “According to both the scientific community and long-standing federal policy, a woman is considered pregnant only when a fertilized egg has implanted in the wall of her uterus.”[5] It should be noted that federal policy is politically driven and, in this instance, relies on a shift in the “scientific” definition was never scientific at all.

We can and should have hope that HHS is beginning to understand what science has made clear for years: that a unique human being is formed at the moment of conception. Naturally, as the department of Health and Human Services, they are charged with the protection of all Americans, including the unborn— even those who haven’t even made it to the safety of the uterine wall.

— Forest Hempen
Marketing and Communications Associate


[1] Planned Parenthood Federation of America. (2015). The Birth Control Pill: A History. [Pamphlet]. Accessed online: 21 Nov., 2017. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/1514/3518/7100/Pill_History_FactSheet.pdf

[2] Boving, B.G., “Implantation Mechanisms”, in Mechanics Concerned with Conception. Hartman, C.G., ed. (Pergamon Press 1963), page 386.

[3] American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Terminology Bulletin. Terms Used in Reference to the Fetus. No. 1. Philadelphia: Davis, September, 1965.

[4] Marshall, R.G. (2017, Jan.) Virginia General Assembly 2017 Session (House Joint Resolution No. 588). Virginia. Retrieved from: https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?171+ful+HJ588+pdf

[5] Gold, R.B. (2005). The Implications of Defining When A Woman Is Pregnant. Guttmacher Policy Review, 8(2). Retrieved from: https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2005/05/implications-defining-when-woman-pregnant