Amidst hazy threats of a government shutdown next September, the revival of the Hydra-like health care bill, confusing (at best) comments about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, overtures to despotic world leaders, and a "religious liberty" executive order, the appointments of two anti-choice activists to leadership positions in the Department of Health and Human Services was easy to miss. By now, of course, we know that’s not an accident.
Charmaine Yoest, formerly head of Americans United for Life was named assistant secretary of health and human services, and Teresa Manning, a former legal analyst and lobbyist for the anti-choice groups National Right to Life and the Family Research Council was named deputy assistant secretary for population affairs.
The appointments represent the traction that extreme anti-choice views have gained with the help of the Trump administration. The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, former Georgia congressman Tom Price, co-sponsored legislation in 2005 and 2007 that would have granted full legal rights to zygotes beginning at the moment of conception, which would have banned not only abortion but emergency contraception. He voted in favor of the Blackburn Amendment to HJ Resolution 59 in 2013, which would have allowed insurers to deny women access to birth control on the basis of religious objections. Yoest and Manning have expressed similarly staunch views.
Yoest has made false claims that having an abortion increases a woman’s chances of breast cancer, and was one of the architects of efforts to pass state laws requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and facilities outfitted like surgical centers. In Texas, such a law led to the closure of more than 80 family planning clinics and was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt because it served no medical purpose.
Yoest believes abortions should be illegal in all cases with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother and opposes IUDs because she believes, despite a lack of scientific evidence, that they act as abortifacients.
Manning has expressed equally fallacious sentiments, insisting that birth control actually raises the rate of abortions, again, despite evidence to the contrary. Manning’s appointment is especially troubling, given that as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs she will allocate Title X family planning funding and will be in charge of setting policy for providing contraceptive services to low-income Americans.
The appointments also represent the commitment of the Trump administration to points of view firmly entrenched in the alternative fact universe, where objective scientific evidence is summarily dismissed and even derided. When New York Times writer Emily Bazelon confronted Yoest with evidence—an analysis of more than 50 studies involving over 80,000 women with breast cancer—that contradicted her claims that having an abortion increases a woman’s chance of developing the disease, Yoest referred to a group of pro-life obstetricians and gynecologists without citing any actual data and declared that the scientific establishment is “under the control of the abortion lobby.”
Research shows that the availability of birth control to women is directly linked to their ability to attain postsecondary education and pay equity, and it even increases their likelihood of ending up in enduring marriages. Yoest and Manning’s opposition to abortion and birth control is inextricable from an opposition to the social advances women in the United States have made in the last half-century, brought about in large part by their ability to delay and space out the birth of their children.
The contradiction beckons the question: exactly whose health and which humans will Price, Yoest, and Manning be serving at HHS?
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at email@example.com.