Members of the Trump administration have long conflated abortion and birth control. Now it seems the administration is doing the same thing in emails to constituents.
A woman who sent the White House an email as part of a campaign to counter measures by the administration to curb access to birth control was surprised to receive a reply within hours — but even more surprised that the response had nothing to do with birth control, and instead touted President Trump’s anti-abortion stances.
Charissa, who asked that her last name not be used, had used an online form to send an email to the White House protesting the administration’s recent weakening of an Obama-era requirement that most employers offer copay-free insurance coverage for birth control. The emailed response, she said, didn’t specifically mention birth control at all. And she wasn’t alone.
The Keep Birth Control Copay Free campaign, launched in May and funded by the Women’s Equality Center, offers a form email that users can send to the White House. “I demand you keep birth control copay free,” the message begins. “Why? Because it’s absolutely critical to women’s health, equality and empowerment.”
When Charissa used the website to send the message, she got the following response from the White House:
Thank you for taking the time to express your views regarding abortion.
The right to life is fundamental and universal. As your President, I am dedicated to protecting the lives of every American, including the unborn.
As I have made clear, organizations like Planned Parenthood should not receive Federal funding if they perform abortions. For that reason, I was proud to sign into law a bill that allows States to prioritize how they spend their Federal family planning grant money, including the choice to withhold taxpayer funding from organizations that insist on performing abortions.
I am also dedicated to ensuring that America does not fund abortions abroad. That is why one of the first actions I took as President was to reinstate and modernize the Mexico City policy, which ensures that American taxpayer dollars are not used to fund organizations that perform abortions in foreign countries.
At the same time, I am deeply committed to investing in women’s health and support Federal funding for programs that provide world-class services for women, such as cardiovascular care, breast and cervical cancer screenings, family planning and gynecological care, and obstetrics and prenatal care. I will continue to advocate for policies that promote better healthcare for women.
Thank you again for your suggestions. As President, I am committed to protecting the right to life and supporting women’s health services. Please visit www.WhiteHouse.gov to read more on how I am delivering on these issues for the American people.
The message was electronically signed by Trump (see the image below). Vox used a method recently outlined by ProPublica to authenticate the email’s ARC signature, a way of determining that it was not tampered with by the recipient.
As it turns out, Charissa wasn’t the only one to receive this message — other users of the Keep Birth Control Copay Free website have as well, according to a spokesperson for the campaign.
The White House has not yet responded to questions from Vox about the message Charissa received. But in the past, the Trump administration has spread faulty information on contraception — and one influential member of the administration has argued that many types of birth control are actually forms of abortion.
“I was really confused and frustrated with the response,” Charissa said. “If American people take the time to voice their opinions about something,” she added, it’s important “that they’re at least getting an accurate statement back.”
The Trump administration has a history of promoting misinformation on contraception
The message Charissa got wasn’t the only response received by users of the email form at Keep Birth Control Copay Free. According to the campaign, some users received the following instead, also electronically signed by the president:
Thank you for taking the time to express your views regarding religious liberty.
I have signed an Executive Order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which is based on the fundamental principle, enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, that the government should not discriminate against or punish Americans or their organizations simply because of their religious beliefs. It is improper for the government to make religious organizations, such as schools, churches, hospitals, and charities, choose between violating their religious beliefs and closing their doors.
I firmly believe that America is stronger when people of faith and their organizations can exercise their religion freely. These people and organizations are often government’s most effective partners in caring for the sick and elderly, assisting the poor, educating the young, and showing love and compassion to all. America’s tradition of welcoming faith into the public square is a source of our strength.
Unfortunately, we have occasionally lost sight of the importance of religious freedom. Changes to the Federal tax code made by the Johnson Amendment, for example, prohibit churches and religious organizations from participating or intervening in certain types of political campaigns. This law inhibits our faith leaders from speaking freely about moral and other issues without fear of retribution.
Only Congress can repeal the Johnson Amendment, but I have done everything in my power to limit its infringement on critical First Amendment rights. My Executive Order helps ensure that churches and religious organizations are able to take public positions on moral and political issues without undue Government interference.
My Executive Order also addresses harmful Obamacare regulations that require employer-provided healthcare plans to cover certain items and services that may violate their religious or moral beliefs. These regulations force such organizations to choose between following their consciences and facing severe penalties. The government should not force law-abiding organizations to make this choice.
Thank you again for writing. Our First Amendment right to practice our faith freely, without government penalties, must be defended. As President, I am committed to protecting religious liberty for all Americans.
“The Trump administration’s response just shows they have a single, sweeping reproductive health agenda: putting basic, essential care, including birth control and abortion, out of reach for millions of Americans,” said Amy Runyon-Harms, the coordinator of the Keep Birth Control Copay Free campaign, in a statement to Vox.
It’s not clear why the White House sent these particular emails in response to messages about birth control, but the fact that multiple users received each one suggests that the responses were intentional, not a mistake. And the Trump administration has been spreading anti-contraceptive messages — and conflating birth control with abortion — for some time. In particular, the administration has used misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of birth control to justify moves that would reduce access to the medication.
In October, the Trump administration released new rules allowing any employer to seek an exemption from the birth control coverage requirement for moral or religious reasons. Included in the rules were misrepresentations of the science around birth control, as Vox’s Julia Belluz has noted.
The administration questioned whether birth control really works to reduce unintended pregnancy, despite clear evidence that it does. In one 2014 study, for instance, researchers provided a group of teenagers with free birth control and followed them for three years; their rates of pregnancy — and abortion — were less than half those of other American teens.
The rules also suggested that a birth control coverage mandate could “affect risky sexual behavior in a negative way.” This claim is not supported by research, as Belluz notes. It also harks back to arguments used by anti-contraception advocates as long ago as the 1870s.
Several people working on health care policy in the Trump administration have expressed both anti-abortion and anti-contraception views. Notably, Matthew Bowman, a lawyer at the Department of Health and Human Services who was reportedly a key author of the new birth control regulations, wrote in 2011 that the Obama administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate included “several drugs or devices that cause the demise of an already conceived but not yet implanted human embryo, such as certain intrauterine devices (IUDs). Likewise in that category are many birth control methods that potentially prevent embryos from implantation, such as ‘the Pill’ and ‘emergency contraception.’” Bowman also referred to the contraceptive coverage mandate as “the HHS abortifacient mandate.”
Opponents of birth control have long argued that many forms should be considered abortifacients because they can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. In fact, daily birth control pills, IUDs, emergency contraception, and other hormonal methods work primarily by inhibiting ovulation, fertilization, or both — not by stopping already fertilized eggs from implanting. Scientists say that the morning-after pill, a subject of controversy in recent years, does not prevent implantation of fertilized eggs. In some cases, a copper IUD inserted after sex can act as emergency contraception, and may inhibit implantation — but studies suggest this is relatively uncommon. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is clear: “FDA-approved contraceptive methods are not abortifacients.”
Though the Trump administration’s new rules on birth control went into effect immediately, they are not technically final, and the Health and Human Services Department accepted public comments on them until December 5. More than half a million Americans wrote to the administration to protest the broad exemptions offered by the new regulations and to ask HHS to protect birth control access. The rules have also been challenged in court, and a judge has blocked them from being enforced nationwide until the case is heard.
Charissa decided to join those writing to oppose the new rules because of how much the contraceptive mandate meant to her. “I remember the first time picking up my birth control prescription and not having to pay for a copay,” she said, “and it was just this incredibly validating feeling knowing that the Obama administration cared about women.”
Copays can be a real economic obstacle for many women, she added. “I wouldn’t want us to go back to that.”
Russell Brandom contributed reporting.