The XX Factor

Trump Will Appoint a Zealot Who Insists Abortion Causes Breast Cancer to HHS Leadership

Charmaine Yoest, who doesn’t trust scientists, will be a top U.S. health official.

Wikimedia Commons/Americans United for Life

Donald Trump announced Friday that he is appointing an opponent of abortion, science, contraception, same-sex marriage, and common sense to the Department of Health and Human Services. Charmaine Yoest, who was until recently president of the radical anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, will serve as the agency’s assistant secretary for public affairs.

At AUL, Yoest was behind a sizable segment of the wave of anti-abortion legislation that swept U.S. statehouses in 2011 and 2012. These days, right-wing politicians are retreating from claims that their abortion restrictions protect women’s health and safety, since the Supreme Court exposed those arguments as pretense in last year’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. But for many years, that narrative—developed in large part by Yoest—drove anti-abortion legislation, including bills with absurd titles like the Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act (a law, since deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, requiring abortion providers to be outfitted as ambulatory surgical centers) and the Mother’s Health and Safety Act (Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban).

For an in-depth look at the motives and tactics that drive Yoest, read Slate contributor Emily Bazelon’s 2012 profile in the New York Times Magazine. Yoest told Bazelon that she thinks intrauterine devices have “life-ending properties” and chooses not to believe the many studies that have shown that increased contraception access reduces abortion rates. (“It’s really a red herring that the abortion lobby likes to bring up by conflating abortion and birth control,” she once said in a PBS interview.) Yoest does not support exceptions in abortion restrictions for cases of rape, incest, or serious threats to a pregnant woman’s health and was a major player in the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s quickly-reversed decision to pull their funding from Planned Parenthood.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Yoest insisted to Bazelon that abortion causes breast cancer, an out-of-nowhere claim disputed by several dozen studies and the top institutions in both cancer research and women’s health. Scientists are “under the control of the abortion lobby,” Yoest said when confronted with the data, calling the overwhelming evidence against her claim a “spin” that “really troubles me” as a survivor of breast cancer. Since Yoest’s position doesn’t require Senate confirmation, she’s already as good as in. And just like that, one of the United States’ health officials will be a zealot who refuses to acknowledge valid research and believes established medical facts spring from the liberal imagination.

Yoest’s new boss, Secretary Tom Price, is similarly opposed to abortion rights and contraception access, though he’s pursued his agenda as a legislator instead of an advocate. While Price will oversee policy shifts and enforcement, Yoest, as the department’s chief communicator, will be tasked with making any rollbacks of women’s health care go down easy for the general public. Supporters of women’s rights have reason to fear she’ll be frighteningly successful. “Though she has helped usher in hard-hitting changes in women’s health care, Yoest is especially good at sounding reasonable rather than extreme,” Bazelon wrote in 2012. “She never deviates from her talking points, never raises her voice and never forgets to smile.”