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The US health secretary is making anti-abortion speak official government language

Anti-abortion activist
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
More than words.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The mission of the US Department of Health & Human Services is “to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans,” according to its website. Yet its leader, Alex Azar, seems to believe the mission is to promote anti-abortion values and actions within the health system.

Today, Donald Trump became the first sitting president ever to attend the March for Life—a large anti-abortion gathering that has occurred annually for 47 years— just after his health secretary made a remark that equally showed the government’s commitment to oppose full reproductive rights. In a statement published last night, Azar, who also participated in the event, proudly shared all the moves made by his department to restrict access to abortion, including curtailing Title X funds and pushing back against the provisions of an international right to safe abortion.

But perhaps more incisive than the statement itself is the way it is phrased. Although the wording reflects Azar’s positions, it also, because he speaks in the official capacity of the HHS leader, becomes the latest action in the department’s language war against reproductive rights and health.

“It is an honor to lead a department that has demonstrated our full commitment to protecting the dignity of life from conception to natural death,” reads the statement, which makes large use of anti-abortion language, and promises to “continue protecting life and lives while upholding the fundamental freedoms and inherent dignity of all Americans.”

This is a contradiction: Since the US protects the right to abortion, upholding the freedom of all Americans necessarily includes ensuring access to safe abortion for women seeking it, something that is at odds not just with the protection of life after conception, but with the very idea that life begins at conception.

In the speech, the secretary also offered his own soft rebranding of the department, calling it “Department of Life.” Critics were fast to highlight the HHS’s involvement in the detention of children separated from their families, and its responsibility for their conditions: Horrific reports of the dehumanizing conditions in which the children are kept, as well as the deaths that have happened under custody, scarcely fit within the idea of a “department of life.”

The Orwellian label for the department, as well as the description of its functions, is part of a pattern. As Quartz has reported, the HHS has progressively introduced faith-based terms to replace science-based ones in the site’s pages, and reduced the use of terms respectful of LGBTQ preferences. The introduction of expressions taken from anti-abortion campaigning in the health department’s work has been systematic, and the secretary’s latest statement makes one further step into making partisan language part of the official language.

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