When it comes to President Donald Trump’s first year in office, perhaps no department has been more radically altered than the Department of Health and Human Services. From the moment that the president announced he was appointing Senator Tom Price — a Georgia Republican infamous for his opposition to birth control — as the Secretary of HHS, we knew we were in for a complete shift in how health, science, and even outright fact would be viewed in the new administration.
But little did we know just how right we would be.
Secretary Price is long gone, but his influence — and that of other anti-reproductive rights appointees in the department – extends far beyond DC. The DHHS attempt to “ban” the use of certain words it disagrees with is just one example of the department’s efforts to simply ignore opposition and create a new, one-sided reality.
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The DHHS started the ball rolling back in October when it accepted public comment on its new action plan, one that changed the department’s mission by redefining it as protecting health “from the moment of conception,” a far-right code for “personhood” rights at the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg — and wording that could ban both abortion and some forms of contraception. The DHHS ignored pushback from scientists and doctors concerned about the new phrasing, a pattern that continues today.
Also in October, the DHHS sought public comment for its new “religious liberty” accommodations which would allow discrimination against reproductive health care, LGBT services and other issues that religious people might allegedly object to under the guise of “moral opposition.” Yet when the time came to display that public response, the department chose to primarily publish comments that supported the exemptions.
As Politico reports:
While HHS received 10,729 comments on its proposal, the agency has only posted 80 comments — less than 1 percent of all submissions — that overwhelmingly back the administration’s anti-abortion policies or attack regulations advanced by the Obama administration, such as a rule forcing health care providers that accept federal funding to provide services to transgender patients. Sources with knowledge of HHS’ decision say the agency hand-picked the comments that it released.
Gaming the system is a favorite tactic of the far-right for promoting their ideological position. From the millions of fake comments opposing net neutrality to cutting off in-person legislature testimony in order to push through anti-abortion bills, staunch conservatives are old hats at making their voices represent the majority — no matter how few of them really exist.
It’s a tactic that continues to create a highly skewed public record — and one that officially leaves the general public unsure of the truth. Meanwhile, the right exacerbates the issue with “fake news” narratives and conservative media echo chambers, leaving many confused about what is actually true — and with little way to verify stories.
The Trump administration has gone all in on this dangerous game, both in the DHHS and beyond. Nearly a year in, officials continue to block access to FOIA requests, presidential visitor logs and the president’s tax returns, – not to mention their routine efforts to destroy records and delete web pages.
As long as the Department of Health and Human Services believes it can act with unchecked power, and rewrite its own rules to conform with certain religious beliefs, opponents must continue to publicly and repeatedly fight these efforts — and apparently create a paper trail of evidence along the way. Otherwise, in a few years, an alternate history may be accepted as fact — one in which the right will deny any resistance.