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

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s health secretary, facing criticism from other Democrats that the administration is not doing enough to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision over Roe v. Wade, said Tuesday there was “no panacea” to limit access to abortion. – even if he outlined a series of steps his department will take to do so.

Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters that, at the direction of Mr. Biden, he had instructed his agency to take a number of steps, including to ensure federal programs cover abortion with drugs in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.

At a morning news conference, Mr. Becerra said his department would work with the Department of Justice to ensure women have access to abortion pills — two different drugs, taken 24 to 48 hours apart and approved for the first 10 weeks of the pregnancy. 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.

It also requires hospital emergency departments to comply with a federal law that requires them to stabilize patients experiencing a medical emergency, including by performing abortions when necessary. And it will take steps to ensure patient records are private, to prevent state or local officials from identifying women who have had abortions.

But those steps may not go far enough for progressive Democrats and other reproductive rights advocates. Some lawmakers, including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have pressured the government to build abortion clinics on federal land and pay people who leave the state to request abortions.

Those were not among the measures Mr Becerra announced on Tuesday, and he sounded a warning about what the administration can and cannot do. Complex legal issues still need to be resolved, he said, to ensure the administration does not violate the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“It was a long decision and it has set a 50-year precedent, so you want to make sure what you’re doing is within the bounds of the law,” said Mr. becerra. “We’re not interested in rogue states.”

He called the court’s decision “despicable” and said at one point he wanted to “apologise” that the government could not do more. “There is no panacea,” he said, “but if we can do something, we will find it and we will do it.”

The government has studied the idea, but remains skeptical of the idea of ​​hosting abortion clinics in federal enclaves such as military bases and national parks — where prosecutors have no jurisdiction — in states where abortion is now a crime.

The problem, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations, is that the federal government could not guarantee that doctors who are not federal employees performing official duties — and possibly patients — are not at risk of prosecution. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre rejected the idea Tuesday, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that it could have “dangerous consequences” for women and doctors.

If a Republican won the presidency in 2024, his or her Justice Department could charge people for state abortion crimes — and the statute of limitations on prosecuting behavior dating back to 2022 won’t have expired. States could strip doctors of their medical license. And prosecutors could try to charge people for related behavior that happened outside the enclave — such as helping women get there — based on a theory of complicity or conspiracy.

Offering financial aid to women to cross state lines to obtain an abortion could also be problematic for the administration, as it could violate the so-called Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using federal funds to pay for abortion. except in cases of rape or incest, or where the mother’s life is in danger. Mr. Becerra was asked on Tuesday whether the Department of Health and Human Services could provide such financial assistance.

Once officials know “exactly what we think we can do, and have the money to do it, we’ll let you know,” he said. “But until then, I could just say to you: every option is on the table.”

One area where the administration can act is to ensure that women have access to emergency contraception — the so-called morning-after pill, also known as Plan B — and intrauterine devices. Both are common birth control methods, but abortion opponents consider them “abortions” and have tried to restrict access to them in some states.

Some family planning clinics in states that ban abortion say they are now running out of Plan B as women – fearing the pills will be banned – are stocking up. Hailey Kramer, a nurse practitioner at Tri-Rivers Family Planning in Rolla, Mo., said Monday that the clinic’s supplier was struggling with rising demand and that the pills had been backordered since a draft of the advice quashing Roe was last. leaked. month.

Mr. Becerra also said he instructed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to take action against states, including Missouri, which have excluded Planned Parenthood, a major provider of birth control, from Medicaid family planning programs that reimburse such services.

“We will make it clear that family planning providers can participate in the Medicaid program,” he said.

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