Trump’s health chief touts success of ‘Department of Life’

January 24, 2020, 8:56 PM UTC

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) branded itself as “the Department of Life” in an anti-abortion statement released Thursday by HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“Protecting conscience is our moral obligation as Americans and our legal obligation as faithful stewards of the law,” said Azar. “We are proud to be ‘the Department of Life.'”

The remark came a day before Friday’s March for Life, an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., held each year around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973.

While the March for Life protesters have been gathering annually for more than 40 years, President Donald Trump was the first President to address the group. Previous conservative presidents who supported the cause sent video messages or a representative in their place.

Azar’s statement referring to the HHS as “the Department of Life” staunchly aligned the agency with Trump’s anti-abortion agenda.

The HHS houses regulative agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but it’s also in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). After the Trump administration implemented changes to immigration policy last year, the ORR began regularly separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In all, ORR took custody of nearly 70,000 migrant children in 2019. Thus Azar’s claim that “the Department of Life” has demonstrated its dedication to “protecting the dignity of life” has been rejected by those like Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who tweeted the new label was “really rich for an agency that was a primary architect of putting children in cages on the border. There is no bottom.”

At least for the time being, “the Department of Life” appears to simply be a nickname. Neither Trump nor Azar has indicated they intend to make the name official.

Executive agencies have been renamed in the past, but typically in tandem with structural changes that warrant the retitling. The HHS itself was known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare until the late ’70s, when President Jimmy Carter created a separate department for education.

Some changes to such agencies can be made through executive action, but reorganization often requires congressional approval. In 2018, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget proposed consolidating food assistance programs within the HHS and renaming it the Department of Health and Public Welfare. This change, however, has yet to come to fruition.

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