Noting the practice of doctors to administer anesthesia to second-term unborn babies for fetal surgery, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked him if he believed it should be "routine" to also do so in cases of late-term abortion.
"Do you believe it should be routine to also give anesthesia to unborn children during late-term abortion to minimize the pain that they're capable of experiencing?" Grassley asked. Becerra responded that he would follow both the "science" and the "law" as health secretary.
"In my career of having worked to protect the health of all Americans, what I would do as secretary is what I've done as attorney general of our state, and that is I would follow the law, and expect others to follow the law," Becerra said.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pressed him on the issue of religious freedom, asking if he would maintain an existing HHS office to uphold conscience protections in health care. The HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, established in 2018, hears complaints by health care workers objecting to participating in procedures such as abortion or assisted suicide.
"I believe deeply in religious freedom," Becerra said, adding that as health secretary he would "respect" and "enforce" the law.
Lankford followed up, asking Becerra why his office was involved in religious freedom lawsuits including NIFLA v. Becerra.
"Right now, California is following the rules that were provided to us by the Supreme Court," Becerra said of the 2018 ruling. After the NIFLA ruling, the HHS civil rights office found that Becerra had previously violated federal conscience protections by enforcing the law; however, the HHS office simultaneously closed the case, noting that the violations occurred before the high court's decision.
Lankford noted that Becerra's was a "unique situation" of having sued the federal government, only to be nominated to head a federal agency.
"I will have to abide by ethics rules," Becerra said, noting that he would have to recuse himself in certain cases California is involved with at the state level.
Lankford emphasized it was "exceptionally important" to honor conscience rights of health care workers, on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide. "This is going to be a very significant issue," he said.
Becerra was also questioned by senators on the issue of abortion on Tuesday. He would not directly answer whether he, as health secretary, would support taxpayer-funded abortion, and did not explain why he previously opposed a 2003 ban on partial-birth abortions.
Becerra did indicate that he wanted to expand access to chemical abortions, saying that patients have found Telehealth advantageous during the coronavirus pandemic. In response to a question about federal restrictions on the abortion pill regimen, he said that remote health care practice is "something that we should really build on."
Pro-abortion groups have pushed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow for remote prescribing and dispensing of the abortion pill regimen.