We’re Still Here: Why the HHS Censoring Women’s Health Matters

By: Negar Esfandiari

The internet is a big part of healthcare in the current moment. If you have a sore throat, you might check WebMD for symptoms of strep throat or a cold. Upon finding a new mole, maybe you’ll take to Google to determine whether or not you should show it to your doctor. Or maybe you’re just wondering how frequently you should get tested for STIs, and within minutes you can consult a number of trusted resources. Seems pretty universal, right?

You would assume so. But the Department of Health and Human Services apparently does not agree. In December of last year, they removed multiple pages from the Office of Women’s Health website regarding breast cancer and health information for lesbian and bisexual women, reporting that these pages were “very rarely used” and even “outdated.” These excuses only came after the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project’s reported the missing webpages and HHS was forced to respond. The Sunlight Foundation’s report mentions that HHS spokespeople said these removals were part of a “routine update” and that the information on all removed pages was integrated into other parts of that website.

But much like other information we are given from the Trump administration, that does not check out. According to the report, the breast cancer page contained links to seven other related pages, including information about symptoms, treatment, risk factors, and public programs for free or low or low-cost cancer screenings conducted through the CDC and through ACA provisions. There was also a Spanish version of the breast cancer page. Now, all of the information regarding breast cancer and queer women’s health can no longer be found on any section of the website. OWH’s Twitter has not mentioned LGBTQ issues since November of 2016, and they removed “bisexual and lesbian health” from the site’s directory of topics.

Feeling tossed to the side for the sake of a political agenda is not an unfamiliar feeling for any marginalized community under Trump, especially the low-income women and queer women whom this website overhaul specifically targets. It’s almost hard to decide which is worse: flippant disregard or blatant efforts of erasure. The reality is that both have incredibly detrimental effects on people’s health, and isn’t the exact goal of a women’s health website to provide the opposite?

If an HHS spokesperson claimed that “the health content was integrated into the relevant health topics pages across the website,” it makes you wonder where we might look for this repurposed information. But the answer to that is both upsetting and unsurprising: we won’t find it because information that caters to low-income women, women who benefit from the ACA, and queer women is not relevant to this HHS. They have consistently shown us that their political agenda has more weight than people’s medical needs and identities. This is another iteration of that message: we don’t want to help you.

How do we reconcile not being able to trust elected officials to give us information for how to survive? The internet is the first place many go to, especially if they do not have insurance, can’t afford a doctor’s visit, or can’t guarantee that healthcare providers will understand how their identity influences their health concerns. An HHS spokesperson said that the removed content “was not mobile friendly” but if it’s not there at all, how does that alleviate the issue? Our own website’s Trusted Resources page has included OWH’s website for years, but how do we trust an agency that does not put people’s health before political disagreements? We hear about the dangers of misinformation and censorship in TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale or even 1984, and in the case of the HHS website, it just feels like another “installment” of erasure that brings us closer to those dystopias.

By assigning zero value to the removed information, HHS officials create a culture of prioritizing certain identities and conditions over others. Not to mention, they dilute the intersections of people’s experiences, creating even more obstacles for people who come from multiple marginalized communities or deal with serious medical conditions. It seems like the Trump administration is not only unwilling to meet the incredibly low bar of providing basic information, but disturbingly proactive about denying people the right to have trustworthy healthcare resources.

Prioritizing political or religious ideology over people’s health is unfortunately not new for Trump’s government. We’ve seen this with their defense of fake clinics, impeding young immigrant women from obtaining abortions, and rolling back protections for transgender patients. The list goes on and on, and we cannot let it keep growing.

The Network will always strive for providing safe, unbiased health information for women but now more than ever, we hope you will join us in telling the HHS to stop letting their twisted agenda get in the way of our care. The actions you may think are small, like signing petitions, participating in hashtags, or just telling your colleagues about recent developments do have an impact. So take to Twitter and write a few tweets in support of #PutPatientsFirst, keep creating conversation about these changes that Trump hopes will go unnoticed, and help us let the Trump administration know: our care is non negotiable.