Trump, the new Reagan: ‘religious freedom’ endangers public health

By Editorial Board

The “moral” majority of the 1980s has made it to the 21st century, and now they wear “Make America Great Again” hats.

The Department of Health and Human Services created the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division Jan. 18, which is ironically inside the Office of Civil Rights. This new federal division will focus on allowing medical professionals to deny patients treatment if a procedure conflicts with their religious beliefs. 

Existing laws already allow health-care workers to deny services, such as abortions or sex reassignment surgery for transgender people, under the guise of religious freedom. But this move in the federal government ensures those draconian laws will be enforced, and marginalized groups that are already under attack will feel the brunt of that enforcement. 

Since his election, President Donald Trump and his administration have been a danger to public health.

On Dec. 14, 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received a list of words or phrases the agency was discouraged from using in grant funding. Banning words like “transgender,” “fetus” and “diversity” is emblematic of denying the existence of different life experiences in research in order to appease bigotry.

Denial is nothing new with this administration. Scott Pruitt’s appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency Feb. 17, 2017, crushed any hopes of progress in reversing the damage of climate change. Pruitt mirrors climate change deniers that make up the president’s cabinet and much of Congress by continuously avoiding the topic and proudly advocating for fossil fuels, a major pollution culprit. 

Along with efforts to censor officials in agencies like the CDC or appoint people with the same dangerous motives in positions of power, the crusade against science continues in the form of budget cuts and layoffs. For example, the administration has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 30 percent, the lowest it has been in 40 years, and the agency may have to continue reducing staff with buyouts or layoffs this year.

It is not a hyperbole to consider the Trump administration a public health disaster because we know from past administrations the dire consequences of such censorship, denial and regressive actions.

Former President Ronald Reagan and his administration silenced marginalized groups fighting the AIDS epidemic and refused to provide medical research or resources to ease the damages of the disease. By the time Reagan began drawing attention to the epidemic in public speeches, thousands of people had already died.

Reagan didn’t act to save those affected by the AIDS epidemic, but like the current administration, he made a point to place religious beliefs over civil rights in 1988 when he vetoed a bill that would have expanded the reach of anti-discrimination laws, stating, “it would place at risk such cherished values as religious liberty.” 

The AIDS epidemic was its own distinct type of devastation, but the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is a continuation of the attack on marginalized people’s health. Scores of people will be denied the right to procedures that can mean life or death because the administration chooses to stand behind those who deny certain people’s humanity.

Many have considered Trump an anomaly to the White House. His braggadocious demeanor may make him louder than the politicians who have carried the same dangerous agendas before him, but far-right conservatives we fight against today are of the same ilk as decades ago.

We must acknowledge that this is a prolonged assault. As history has taught us, we must always be vigilant even when the attacks aren’t obvious. Otherwise, we become silent, and silence equals death.