Biden’s Health Secretary: ‘No Magic Bullet’ for Preserving Abortion Access

The health secretary announced measures aimed at maintaining access to abortion as the White House faced mounting pressure to react to the Supreme Court’s decision.

In response to calls for President Biden to take a strong stance against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, took to a podium on Tuesday to outline the measures his department would take to protect and expand access to abortion.

For the time being, at least, the list is short.

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Statements By Biden’s Health Secretary Xavier Becerra

Mr. Becerra said at a morning news conference, “There is no magic bullet, but if there is something we can do, we will find it and do it.”

Although neither the White House nor Mr. Becerra‘s agency was caught off guard by the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to strike down the constitutional right to abortion, they were nonetheless unprepared to act swiftly in the wake of the ruling. Administration officials say they need more time to figure out how to deal with the unexpected legalization of a common form of women’s health care in about half the country.

In spite of this, Mr. Biden is under significant political pressure to take action, and after his news conference, some advocates accused Mr. Becerra of coming across as too tepid. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) are just two of the many prominent Democrats who have been urging the Biden administration to consider the possibility of constructing abortion clinics on federal land and providing financial support to people from other states who must travel there for the procedure.

Biden Health Secretary
Biden Health Secretary

 Instead, he stated that Mr. Biden had instructed him to take measures, such as ensuring that federal insurance programs cover medication abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of public funds to pay for abortions but makes an exception for these three situations.

“We can’t meet scorched earth with milquetoast,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, an advocacy organization. “I am not asking for scorched earth, but I am saying you need to be willing to stop drawing within the lines. You need to be willing to take some risks.”

Ms. Miller argued that the administration should find a way to help abortion clinics that are on the verge of closing, perhaps by transforming them into transportation hubs for women who must travel across state lines. In light of the decision, roughly half of the states have either already allowed bans or other limitations on the procedure to go into effect.

Ms. Miller said she understood the difficulties faced by Biden administration officials and that she felt for them. But the nation is in a crisis, she said, adding, “Why not push the envelope?”

Mr. Becerra said his agency would work with the Justice Department to ensure that women have access to abortion pills — a pair of two different drugs, taken 24 to 48 hours apart and authorized for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy — in places where state law conflicts with the judgment of the Food and Drug Administration, which has approved the drugs for use and determined that they are safe and effective.

In terms of what the administration can and cannot do, Mr. Becerra sounded a note of caution, saying that there were still complex legal issues it needed to sort out to ensure it does not violate the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“It was a long decision and it did spend 50 years of precedent, and so you want to make sure that what you do is within the confines of the law,” Mr. Becerra said. “We’re not interested in going rogue.”

The administration has considered allowing abortion clinics on federal enclaves like military bases and national parks in states where abortion is currently or will soon be illegal, but is still skeptical of the idea.

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