Biden’s Health Secretary: ‘No Magic Bullet’ to Preserve Abortion Access

WASHINGTON – As Democrats and reproductive rights advocates urge President Biden to strongly oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe’s decision to sue Wade, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, took to the podium here on Tuesday to list the steps his department will take to maintain and expand access to abortion.

The list, for now anyway, is short.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Becerra told a morning news conference, “but if there’s something we can do, we’ll find it and we’ll do it.”

Friday’s Supreme Court decision to remove the constitutional right to abortion was not a surprise, but neither the White House nor Mr. Becerra’s agency had an immediate policy response when it was ready. Officials inside the administration say they are still grappling with the prospect of a mainstream women’s health sector suddenly becoming illegal in nearly half the country and it will take time to sort out the issues. their choice.

However, Mr. Biden is under intense political pressure to act, and after his press conference, some supporters accused Mr. Becerra of looking dull. Some Democrats, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have pushed the Biden administration to explore the prospect of building abortion clinics on federal land and paying for it. for foreigners to go there to check in.

Those are not the measures Mr. Becerra announced. Instead, he said that at Biden’s direction, he directed his agency to take steps like ensuring that federal insurance programs cover drug abortions in rape cases. prostitution or incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Although the Hyde Amendment prohibits taxpayers from funding abortions, it does include exceptions for those three.

Andrea Miller, president of National Institute of Reproductive Health, an advocacy organization. “I’m not asking for the scorched earth, but I’m saying you need to be willing to stop drawing in the lines. You need to be willing to take some risks.”

In addition to setting up abortion clinics on federal land, Ms. Miller said the government should find a way to support abortion clinics that are on the verge of closing, perhaps by relocating them to centers. logistics center to help women who need to cross the border. About half of the states are expected to allow injunctions or other procedural limitations to go into effect after the ruling, or already exists.

Ms. Miller acknowledged that the administration had limitations, and said she sympathized with Biden officials. But the nation is in a crisis, she said, adding, “Why not push the envelope?”

Mr Becerra said his agency will work with the Department of Justice to ensure that women have access to the abortion pill – a pair of two different drugs, taken 24 to 48 hours apart and allowed for First 10 weeks of pregnancy – where state law requires. contradicting a ruling by the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the drugs for use and determined that they were safe and effective.

The secretary did not go into detail. But in December, the FDA approve a regulation Allows prescribing abortion pills during telemedicine visits and mailing distribution. Some advocates also want the FDA to state that its rules apply before state laws banning abortion — a move the Justice Department may have to defend in court.

It would also require hospital emergency rooms to comply with federal law that states that they stabilize patients undergoing medical emergencies — including by performing abortions, if necessary. And the agency will take steps to ensure that patient records are private, to keep state or local officials from identifying women who have had abortions.

In making a cautious note about what the government can and cannot do, Mr. Becerra said there are still complex legal issues that need to be worked out to ensure there is no violation of a court ruling in the Group. Dobbs Women’s Health Organization sued Jackson.

“It’s a long-term decision and there’s 50 years of precedent, so you want to make sure that what you do is within the bounds of the law,” Mr Becerra said. “We don’t care about scams.”

He called the ruling “despicable”, and at one point said he wanted to offer “my apologies” that the authorities could do nothing more.

The government has studied, but still skeptical aboutideas about allow abortion clinics on federal areas such as military bases and national parks – where state prosecutors have no jurisdiction – in states where abortion is currently or will be a crime.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed the idea on Tuesday, telling reporters on Air Force One that it could have “dangerous ramifications” for women. woman and doctor.

The problem, according to officials familiar with internal discussions, is that the federal government cannot ensure that doctors who are not federal employees perform their official duties — and potentially patients. – there will be no risk of prosecution.

That’s because the Department of Justice has the authority to prosecute some state crimes. If a Republican is elected president in 2024, his or her Justice Department can charge people with abortion-related crimes dating back to 2022, as the statute of limitations won’t expire. Countries can strip doctors of their medical licenses. And state prosecutors can try to charge people with related conduct that took place outside the suburbs – like helping women get there – under aiding and abetting or conspiracy theories.

Providing financial help to women who cross state lines for abortions can also be a problem for the government, as it could violate the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is at risk.

When asked on Tuesday if the Department of Health and Human Services could provide such financial assistance, Becerra said that once officials know “exactly what we believe we are.” I can do it and have the money to do it, we’ll let you know. ” He added, “But until then, what I can simply tell you is that every option is on the table.”

Following Friday’s ruling, members of Mr Biden’s party increasingly voiced demands that he act. On Saturday, more than 30 Senate Democrats sent him a letter told him there was “no time to waste” and pressed him to use the “full force of the federal government” to protect access to abortion care.

“Now is the time for bold action to protect the right to abortion,” they wrote, adding, “You have the strength to resist and lead a national response to this devastating decision.”

One area where the administration could act is to ensure that women have access to emergency contraception – including the so-called morning-after pill, like Plan B – and the intrauterine device. Both are popular methods of contraception, but opponents of abortion consider them “abortion pills” and in some states have tried to limit access them.

Some family planning clinics in states that ban abortion say their supplies of Plan B are now running low, as women – fearing that the pills will be banned – are in stock. Hailey Kramer, a nurse practitioner at Tri-Rivers Family Planning in Rolla, Mo., said Monday that the clinic’s supplier is struggling with surging demand and that the pills are back in order. since a draft of Roe’s overturned opinion was leaked last month. .

Missouri was one of 13 states that banned abortion after Roe was ousted; Mr. Becerra visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in the state when abortion suddenly became illegal there. Missouri is also one of four states that have excluded Planned Parenthood, a major provider of birth control, from Medicaid family planning programs that reimburse for those services.

Planned Parenthood has said the move violates federal law. Becerra said Tuesday that he has directed the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to “clarify that family planning providers can participate in the Medicaid program.”

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