Web-Washing at the HHS

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services appears once again to be removing material from its Web site that doesn't agree with conservatives

Although it's been awhile since the last reported incident, it appears the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken up the old Web-washing trick, expunging from the federal Web site health-related information that conflicts with the Bush administration's ideological bent – or, in this most recent case, information that offends far-right conservative supporters. Just 10 days after the Christian right-wing Family Research Council penned a letter to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt, complaining about the inclusion of substance abuse and treatment information geared toward the gay, lesbian, and transgendered communities, the information was promptly scrubbed from the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Web site. According to a March report in Southern Voice magazine, the FRC letter to Leavitt complained that the pages in question contained "biased, politically-charged language such as condemnations of so-called 'homophobia' and 'sexual prejudice.'"

According to SAMHSA, however, there is no connection between the FRC's complaint and the disappearance of the material, SAMHSA associate administrator Mark Weber told SV. Rather, Weber said, the information – including resources for finding counselors and facts on substance abuse risks for GLBT populations – was somehow "beyond our scope," and had already been pegged for removal. Interestingly, that's not the explanation Weber gave to Congressional Quarterly; instead, Weber told the journal that it was only after being contacted by the FRC that the pages – which had been in place for six years – were pegged for removal. It took the FRC's complaint, Weber said, for the agency to "realize" that the information was really an "LGBT pride side," reports SV.

This is not the first time that health-related information has been scrubbed by the HHS for ideological reasons; in 2003, the agency washed pages from the web sites of the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health that discussed the safe use of condoms and the connection (or rather, the lack thereof) between abortion and breast cancer. The move earned a nasty response from U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who blasted then HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson for allowing politics to trump science.

In some ways, the most recent HHS scrubbing is even more egregious, if only because agency officials have apparently done little to mask their motives. In responding to CQ that the SAMSHA pages at issue were nothing more than a "gay pride" site, Weber parroted the exact language of FRC President Tony Perkins. Indeed, reports SV, shortly after the pages were removed, Perkins penned a follow-up letter to Leavitt thanking him for "responding to our concerns." (While the pages have not been restored to the SAMSHA Web site, you can see them online at www.thememoryhole.org/health/samhsa_lgbt.)

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