Former HHS official: Becerra must be questioned over conscience violations

Xavier_Becerra_John_Papadopoulos_Shutterstock.jpg Xavier Becerra Credit: John Papadopoulos/Shutterstock

President Biden's health secretary nominee must be held accountable for forcing California Catholic nuns to cover abortions, said a former official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


On Tuesday, Xavier Becerra-California's attorney general and President Biden's nominee for HHS Secretary-was grilled on the topic of abortion at his first Senate confirmation hearing. He will appear before members of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon for his second confirmation hearing.


Roger Severino, the former head of the HHS civil rights office, told CNA on Tuesday that he wished Becerra had to answer for violating federal conscience protections as California's attorney general.


"Becerra should have been asked to explain why he preferred to have California lose $200 million in Medicaid funds over allowing nuns to have insurance without abortion coverage, after my office had found him liable for violating the law," Severino told CNA.


In Jan., 2020, the HHS Office for Civil Rights found that California violated the federal Weldon Amendment through its abortion coverage mandate. The state mandate forced even Catholic religious-the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit-to cover abortions in their health plans.


The Weldon Amendment prohibits federal funding of states that discriminate against a "health care entity" because of its refusal to provide or cover abortions. Severino's office gave Becerra 30 days to comply with the notice of violation, but Becerra refused to do so.


Ten months later, HHS announced it would withhold $200 million in Medicaid funds to California, for violating the law.


Becerra's "resistance to the law" indicates "that he would try to shut down the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division" at HHS, Severino said.


The division was established in 2018 to help enforce existing federal conscience protections for health care workers who object to participating in procedures such as abortions or assisted suicide.

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Becerra "should have been put on record" about leaving the conscience division in place, Severino said.


Severino is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) who directs the center's HHS Accountability Project.


On Tuesday, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee questioned Becerra on his views on partial-birth abortion, taxpayer-funded abortion, and expanding access to chemical abortions.


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As evidenced in his answers, Becerra actually wants to expand access to chemical abortions by allowing remote prescription of the abortion pill regimen, Severino said.


When pressed by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) on his push to deregulate the abortion pill regimen during the pandemic, despite its "serious complications," Becerra answered that the government should allow chemical abortions to be prescribed through Telehealth and dispensed remotely.


"And the fact that we are able to dispense care without having to have our families actually show up at the doctor's office now-through Telehealth and other means-is something that we should really build on," he said.


Pro-abortion groups have pushed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove its safety regulations of the abortion pill regimen. Since 2000, the regimen has been on a list of higher-risk procedures and requires in-person prescription at a medical clinic, by a certified prescriber.


Pro-abortion groups pushed for the regulations to be halted during the pandemic, and for the regimen to be prescribed remotely via Telehealth and shipped to women. In January, the Supreme Court upheld the FDA's protocol during the pandemic.


Severino said that Becerra "made clear that he will expand chemical abortions through the use of technology, even if it increases the threats to the safety of the woman."


When asked by Sen. Mitt Romney why he voted against a partial-birth abortion ban in 2003 as a U.S. congressman, Becerra would not answer why, and emphasized the health secretary's duty of promoting public health.


"[E]veryone wants to make sure that, if you have an opportunity, you're going to live a healthy life," Becerra said. He emphasized the existence of "deeply-held beliefs on this issue" and promised to "find some common ground on these issues."


Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) also reminded Becerra of "where you actually took to court the Little Sisters of the Poor."


After the Trump administration in 2017 granted the Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups broad religious and moral exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate, Becerra sued the administration, alleging that it had violated procedural law in crafting its exemptions. The lawsuit resulted in the Catholic sisters returning to court to defend their religious exemption.


The Supreme Court in 2020 ruled in favor of the Trump administration, but President Biden has said he would scrap the religious exemptions to the mandate in favor of the Obama administration's previous regulations. As the Little Sisters of the Poor had sued over the Obama administration's rule, Biden's promise could reignite the sisters' years-long court battles over the mandate.


"It's notable that he [Becerra] refused to explain why he was in favor of partial-birth abortion, and refused to pledge to leave the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious groups free to operate according to their religious beliefs on human life and morality," Severino told CNA.


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