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The federal health agency’s new initiative names ‘abortion access’ as a top priority.

This article originally appeared on The National Catholic Register

WASHINGTON —The Biden administration’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a “Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access,” labeling abortion access as essential health care and attempting to “eliminate barriers” to it across government agencies. 

Announced on the 49th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion as pro-life advocates marched in Washington, D.C., HHS will also give nearly $2 million in Title X grant funding to Planned Parenthood to “protect reproductive health care and ensure access to quality family-planning services.”

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said that, “as we commemorate the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we recommit to protecting and strengthening access to reproductive health care, including the right to safe and legal abortion care that the Supreme Court has recognized for decades. Patients have the right to make decisions about their own bodies. In light of restrictive laws across the nation, HHS will evaluate the impact on patients and our communities.”

Becerra named HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Rachel Levine and HHS Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Loyce Payce as heads of the task force. Levine, a biological male who identifies as a woman, commented that the task force will “advance policies that improve reproductive health care access within federal programs and services.” Pace said that “advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights is central to our core global health goals.” 

One area that the task force will work on is “implementation of activities identified in the ‘White House National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality — PDF.’” Those activities include using “all available levers to protect these rights” and working “to codify the constitutional rights recognized under Roe v. Wade for nearly half a century.” The “gender” document also states that the administration will “seek to break down discriminatory barriers that inhibit reproductive freedom,” including supporting “the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, because health care should not depend on a person’s income or zip code.” 

The Hyde Amendment has been in place for decades as a bipartisan ban on taxpayer-funded abortion. President Joe Biden reversed his prior support of the amendment on the 2020 campaign trail. 

Abortion as ‘Essential Health Care’

Valerie Huber, the former U.S. special representative for global women’s health at HHS during the Trump administration, now heads the Institute for Women’s Health. She told the Register that, with its new task force, HHS is “looking for every administrative lever they can to promote abortion through programs through policies, regulations, and any other kind of creative, and I would say harmful, interpretations of long-standing federal law and definitions for health and primary care that they are reinterpreting for the purpose of derailing real women’s health gains for abortion.” 

In light of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case, where the Supreme Court could overturn Roe, she said the Biden administration is likely viewing this task force “as a way to further this agenda despite a Supreme Court ruling.” 

Huber added that the Biden administration has been “very intent on women’s health issues to link domestic and global policies.” She pointed out that one of the potential actions outlined in the fact sheet about the task force was “supporting efforts to mitigate the persistent stigmatization of reproductive health care as separate and distinct from other essential primary-care services,” noting that “they are placing abortion in a category of primary care, which traditionally would be treatment of illnesses or injuries,” not “as a marginal practice that most health care providers do not provide.” 

She said this sort of language “is elevating this to more than just a policy disagreement” by “putting it in a health category” and “these are things that are being brought in now to domestic policy as they’ve never been brought before.” Labeling abortion as an “essential service” in this way means that “health care providers have no alternative but to provide those essential health care services,” and conscientious objection is viewed as discrimination. 

Huber pointed out moments when the Biden administration has already done this internationally, including on the first full day of the administration last year, when Dr. Anthony Fauci told the World Health Organization that it is “official policy to support women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in the United States, as well as globally.” She said the terms “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” by  their very definition, suppose “that abortion is a human right, and it supposes that any kind of sexual expression is also a human right.”

Huber also questioned the assertion provided in the task force’s announcement that “restricted access to abortion is associated [with] negative consequences for pregnant individuals and adverse birth outcomes such as preterm births and low-birthweight infants.” She pointed out that there has been research showing that abortion instead increases the subsequent risk of preterm birth. 

Planned Parenthood Payout

Just prior to announcing the new task force, HHS announced that $6.6 million would go to family-planning centers, including $500,000 to Planned Parenthood of New England, $623,280 to Planned Parenthood of South Texas, and $785,256 to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. While Title X money cannot go directly to abortion, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era rule in October and eliminated “requirements for strict physical and financial separation between abortion-related activities and Title X project activities.” 

HHS said the grant came in response to the Texas Heartbeat Law, which took effect in September. The legislation  bans abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which takes place at about six weeks. The money would “address increased need for family-planning services where restrictive laws and policies have impacted reproductive health access.”

Roger Severino, the former head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register regarding the announcement of the task force that “Secretary Becerra was hired to push radical social policies, so it’s no surprise that HHS is focusing on abortion politics instead of the latest COVID surge.”

Prior to his role at HHS, Becerra was involved in many cases involving abortion as California attorney general; in that role, he fell on the side of Planned Parenthood. He vigorously defended a 2015 law requiring pro-life pregnancy centers in California to “disseminate to clients” a message promoting public programs with “free or low-cost access” to abortion and contraceptive services.” A 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2018 determined that law violated the First Amendment. He also enforced a 2014 requirement by California’s Department of Managed Health Care that all health insurers cover elective abortions in their plans. 

Severino added that “with Roe v. Wade about to be sent to the ash bin of history, Becerra is desperate to direct taxpayer dollars to his friends at Planned Parenthood before they lose their profit centers in states that defend life.” 

Skirting State Abortion Restrictions

Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel at Americans United for Life, told the Register that the task force “definitely seems like they’re using the whole of government to try to get around state laws.” She pointed out that the administration knows “they’re not going to pass any big abortion legislation through Congress,” as Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, won’t back the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation that would codify Roe and bar states from restricting abortions. 

“I think they see this as the opportunity to get around the problem,” Glenn said, of Congress being unable to pass such legislation as states enact laws like the heartbeat bill in Texas and the 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi before the Supreme Court in Dobbs

“This is a way to get around all of that political reality that even pro-choice people, by and large, support what the Biden administration and what Planned Parenthood would call ‘sweeping and overly broad and overly cumbersome health and safety regulations’” on abortion, Glenn added. 

A recent Marist poll supports this perspective, as it found that 71% of Americans would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy. It also found that 54% of Americans oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortions at home, while 73% oppose taxpayer money going to abortions abroad. 

Glenn said that if Roe is overturned in the summer it should be interesting to see how Democrats articulate their abortion stance during the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, given that 71% of Americans support prohibiting abortions after 12 weeks. If Roe is overturned, she said, “Democrats in politics can’t hide behind ‘we’re protecting Roe,’ and they have to actually say what they’re for — which is removing parental consent; which is forcing taxpayers to pay for elective abortions throughout pregnancy, not just early in the term.”

Added Glenn, “They know that this is unpopular, and that’s why they hide behind rhetoric.” 

As far as the task force, Glenn said pro-lifers “have to redouble our efforts to be paying attention to everything this administration does.”

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