A new article in the New England Journal of Medicine called out four of President Donald Trump’s recent appointees for promoting bad policy on contraception and abortion -- policies that are rooted in “alternative science” supported by discredited research and right-wing media.
In a June 14 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, University of Wisconsin Law School professor R. Alta Charo, who focuses on the law and bioethics, wrote about President Donald Trump’s appointment of Charmaine Yoest, Teresa Manning, and Valerie Huber to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), as well as his assignment of Katy Talento to serve as a health care adviser on his Domestic Policy Council. Charo lamented that these appointments exemplified how “reproduction has become the victim of alternative science, rife with alternative definitions of well-understood medical conditions.”
In a June 15 article for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik characterized Charo’s article as “identifying four Trump appointees as carriers of the disinformation virus” and called the appointees “the four horsewomen of disinformation.” Most alarmingly, Charo told Hiltzik that these four appointees “could influence an entire generation’s attitude toward contraception, for the worse.”
For example, Charmaine Yoest, the assistant secretary for public affairs at DHHS and the former president of the anti-abortion group Americans United For Life, has a long history of misinforming on contraception, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. One of Yoest’s most egregious and often repeated claims is that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, an assertion that Charo explained “will only encourage the alarming pattern of state legislation requiring physicians to provide this misinformation in the name of ‘informed consent.’”
Similarly, Teresa Manning, the deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at DHHS, is a former legislative analyst for the hate group Family Research Council and a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee. Although Manning doesn’t believe that contraception can be effective, she is now in charge of the Title X program, which provides family planning funds for low-income people. Manning’s belief, which will shape the federal policy, is not supported by science. As Charo noted, there is ample evidence that “hormonal methods are 91% effective and long-acting reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) are 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.”
Trump’s recent appointment of Valerie Huber to serve as chief of staff to the assistant secretary for health is problematic given the department’s oversight of adolescent health programs. As the former head of a group called Ascend, Huber promoted abstinence-only sex education, which Charo rightfully identified as having “repeatedly been shown to be ineffective at preventing” teen pregnancy. Indeed, as multiple studies have found, abstinence-only sex education failed to prevent a long-term delay in sex or teen pregnancy, and, in some cases, actually led to a decrease in the use of condoms or contraception, increasing the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The final appointee Charo criticized was Katy Talento, who now serves as a health care adviser on the Domestic Policy Council. Talento believes birth control causes infertility and miscarriages, which is not supported by the majority of scientific studies. To demonstrate the lack of scientific evidence behind Talento’s claims, Charo pointed to an article Talento had written in which she incorrectly cited a study to claim birth control is “breaking your uterus.”
According to Charo, misinformation on abortion and other reproductive choices has “been used to support abortion restrictions” at the state level, despite having little factual or scientific basis. Such rewriting of science, Charo claimed, is not done by “reasonable people” for they “may disagree about how to interpret data, but they do not ignore scientific method by giving credence to flawed, fraudulent, or misrepresented studies.”
Although the appointment of these anti-choice stalwarts may be recent, the misinformation they advance is nothing new in the world of right-wing media. Fox News has continually provided legitimacy to the discredited anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress and carried water for its disproven claims about fetal tissue donation and Planned Parenthood. Fox News has also hosted people like White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who advocates for 20-week abortion bans based on a flawed scientific premise and has a long history of promoting anti-choice misinformation during her appearances on the network. During the 2016 election, Fox News also alleged multiple times that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supported “partial-birth” abortion, a term that has no medical basis and was, in fact, invented by anti-abortion groups to demonize people seeking medically necessary late-term abortions. Similarly, the congressional Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives relied heavily on claims from anti-abortion groups that were promoted as credible evidence by right-wing media.
Trump’s health care appointees exist in the right-wing media world of “alternative science.” And as the New England Journal of Medicine reported, the impact of these discredited anti-choice views will lead to unsound policies that will have a substantial impact on abortion access and reproductive health throughout the country.