WASHINGTON (CN) — Bracing for at least half of the country to outright ban or otherwise slash abortion services following the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade last week, the president’s top health official assured an anxious public Tuesday that the federal government has no plans to forsake women in post-Roe America.
“Friday's Supreme Court decision was despicable,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a press conference Tuesday. “But it was not unpredictable. HHS has been preparing for this for some time.”
The high court overturned the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade on Friday, putting state governments in charge of abortion legislation after finding that there is no reference abortion in the Constitution, and that the procedure is also not protected as a federal right in either the Due Process Clause or the 14th Amendment.
Becerra was at a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, when the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion came out.
“I saw in real time the impact of this unconscionable decision,” he recalled. "The clinical director had to almost immediately start turning away patients as the state's ban went into effect.
“People in the room were visibly shaken,” the secretary continued. "There were tears. And there was this unshakable sense of sadness."
With a trigger law already in place, Missouri became the first state to outlaw abortion following the Supreme Court's ruling. Becerra recounted how he traveled from St. Louis just across the border to another clinic in Fairview Heights, Illinois, where abortion care is still permitted.
“There I visited a site that helps patients get care by providing assistance, ranging from helping patients find appointments, to paying for their travel expenses, to providing abortion care,” he said. “It was shocking that in the United States of America a short drive can make such a dire and draconian difference in health care outcomes.”
Becerra noted Tuesday that the high court’s decision leaves women and families on unequal footing and will widen maternal health disparities. “Now is time for us to continue moving forward for the many across the country who live now in banned abortion states, who lack the voice and the representation they need,” he said.
Among other initiatives, Becerra said Tuesday that his agency is working to increase access to medication abortion, which federal law requires programs provide when the life of the woman is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest.
“Now more than ever, it is imperative that all federally supported programs and services are complying with the law,” Becerra said.
“The Supreme Court's decision will result in worse and health outcomes and death for some patients. Working to increase access to this drug is a national imperative in the public interest,” he continued.
A lawyer by trade, Becerra underscored that medication abortion has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for years and is safe for patients.
“It is the gold standard for care when someone who's pregnant experiences a miscarriage, which is all too real for many expectant mothers across the country,” he added.
Becerra on Tuesday also announced that the Office for Civil Rights at HHS will take steps to ensure patient privacy and prevent discrimination for those seeking or providing reproductive health care. The agency is also studying what authority it holds under the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act to help doctors and hospitals use abortion as a medical procedure to treat pregnant patients experiencing pregnancy loss or other complications.
All HHS agencies are under direct orders, the secretary continued, to ensure that all providers, “from doctors to pharmacist to clinics,” are appropriately trained and have the resources to handle family planning needs, including administering patient referrals for care. He said the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services meanwhile have been instructed, where legal, to protect family planning care, such as emergency contraceptives and long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs.
What’s more, Becerra added, HHS will ensure family-planning providers are able to participate in the Medicaid program.
President Joe Biden spoke immediately following Friday's decision, vowing to ensure medication abortion remains available and to protect women so they can travel safely from states where abortion banned to where abortion is legal.
While Democrats face overwhelming odds heading into the November midterm elections, they are hoping to leverage the ruling to bring more voters to their side. Prior to the Dobbs ruling, pressure points such as inflation and rising gas and housing prices had conspired to plague Democratic legislators with low approval ratings, suggesting a comfortable path for Republicans to take back the U.S. House and win down the ballot.
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