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Roe Downfall Makes Abortion Access an HHS Priority, Becerra Says

May 4, 2022, 6:18 PM

The Health and Human Services Department intends to do whatever it can within its authority if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Secretary Xavier Becerra told lawmakers Wednesday. However, he didn’t provide any specifics.

The HHS is “not in the business of stripping Americans’ of access and protections to care, so HHS, we will double down on our authority to protect every Americans’ right to access reproductive health care, including abortion,” he said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

His remarks followed the publication May 2 by Politico of a draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. The court said in a statement Tuesday that the draft decision was authentic but not final.

The high court’s potentially striking down of nearly a half-century of legal access to abortion was the foremost topic on Becerra’s agenda in his first appearance before lawmakers since the draft was leaked.

“It is most important that I begin today by responding to the chilling news that certain justices on the Supreme Court appear to be plotting to dismantle settled legal authority that recognizes and protects every woman’s right to make her own decisions about her health and her body, including abortion,” Becerra said. “Some—mostly men—seek to impose their judgment over every woman in America who may seek to exercise her constitutional right to privacy and decision-making. That is dangerous, that is wrong, that we must repel with every just bone in our body.”

Becerra’s strong stance on the issue followed a fiery speech from Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday night in which she called the move a “direct assault on freedom, on the fundamental rights of self-determination to which all Americans are entitled.”

“Today a woman has a right to seek an abortion,” Becerra said in an interview. “Today she has a right to contraceptive and birth control medication.

“And we will continue to do everything we can to protect that right and make it a reality—access to care—and depending on what the Supreme Court does, we will make sure that we’re ready to again protect every American’s right to access the care that they need.”

Becerra pointed to the HHS’ reproductive health-care task force as part of the work it is doing to protect access to abortion. He mentioned past work from the department, like expanding the family planning program Title X, when asked how the department would address access to abortions and contraceptives if Roe was overturned.

“People across the country are worried. They need to see leadership from the Biden administration on this,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said to Becerra during the hearing on the department’s fiscal year 2023 funding request. “Make no mistake: Women’s lives are on the line.”

“We’re also going to make sure that we speak to all those providers who are out there who have an obligation to make sure women are receiving the services they’re entitled to,” Becerra said, adding that he spoke to insurance companies “to make it clear that we intend to enforce the law when it comes to women accessing the care that they’re entitled to.”

GOP lawmakers didn’t mention the draft opinion during the hearing, instead expressing concerns about Covid-19 funding necessity and a new biomedical accelerator agency.

The only mention of abortion from Republicans was a reference to the Hyde Amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). He said that every member of Congress that had voted for funding the HHS had done so including the amendment that bans the use of federal funds for abortion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com