The Biden administration will make abortion pills more widely available following Roe's 'despicable' demise, top health official says
The Biden administration plans to broaden access to abortion medication, including pills.
Health Secretary Xavier Becerra promised to "leave no stone unturned" on abortion care.
He wouldn't say whether travel vouchers or clinics on federal land were a possibility.
The federal government will make abortion pills more readily available to patients now that states have moved to ban abortion following the Supreme Court overturning its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the Biden administration's top health official said on Tuesday.
"Increasing access to this drug is a national imperative and in the public interest," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a 30-minute press conference at the agency's headquarters in Washington, DC.
Becerra vowed his office will work with federal law enforcement agencies to ensure that states cannot ban abortion pills, as some Republican-led states have tried to do — though it's unclear how the laws would be enforced given that pills are sent through the mail.
Federal offices also will be sending information to healthcare providers about the medications, called misoprostol and mifepristone, Becerra said. But he stopped short of saying that every medical provider should offer the abortion pill when asked about the possibility by a reporter.
Instead, he said HHS planned to remind federal healthcare programs that they must, by law, provide abortion pills to patients who want them following cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancies.
Congress and states have turned to the Biden administration for answers on how to respond to Roe's demise since Friday, after the Supreme Court overturned more than 50 years of precedent on abortion rights.
During his press conference, Becerra, who formerly was California's attorney general, laid out a plan for the administration and called the Supreme Court's decision "despicable" but "also predictable."
"At HHS we will leave no stone unturned," Becerra said. "All options are on the table. We will do everything within the legal limit of the law to reach patients and support providers."
The plan is still taking shape
Part of the plan will make clear to healthcare providers who accept Medicaid funding — which generally covers people with lower income levels — that they can use federal funds to pay for birth control for patients. The coverage will pay for emergency contraception, such as Plan B, and long-term contraceptives known as intrauterine devices, or IUDs.
The agency will help train doctors and pharmacists on birth control and on referring patients elsewhere in cases where they cannot provide reproductive healthcare.
Becerra is also directing the Office for Civil Rights to ensure that patients and medical providers can keep health information private and not face discrimination when they seek abortions or birth control.
He wants his office to see how to use the Emergency Medical Treatment Act to enforce abortion rights. While Becerra didn't commit to specifics, one way could be for federal officials to investigate emergency departments that fail to provide abortions when a pregnancy would threaten a patient's health or life.
Becerra's proposals were short on other specifics, too. For instance, he wouldn't say whether the administration would be offering patients travel vouchers to obtain abortions out of state.
When asked about a proposal from Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to put abortion clinics on federal lands, Becerra said he was "aware" of numerous proposals from outside groups but had "made no decisions yet" and would be discussing any proposals with the White House.
Vice President Kamala Harris said on CNN on Monday that the Biden administration hadn't discussed the idea.
"We can't tell you there's a silver bullet," Becerra said, vowing to do "everything we can" but that it would take time to explore options to ensure that their policies were legal.
Medication abortions provide alternative to clinics
Last year, the FDA under President Joe Biden said doctors didn't have to provide pills to abortion patients in person — a move that represented a win for abortion rights advocates. The move allowed healthcare providers to meet with patients over video and prescribe abortion pills that arrive in the mail and can be used for up to 11 weeks into a pregnancy.
Today, medication abortions account for 54% of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
The Supreme Court's decision on abortion turns the legality of the procedure to state legislatures unless members of Congress unify on a national abortion law — whether it be a guarantee to abortion rights or a ban.
Most Democrats in Congress have unified behind the Women's Health Protection Act, which would make abortion legal in all states and toss out most restrictions on the procedure.
Republicans have introduced several bills to ban abortions later in a pregnancy and a bill to bar the FDA from approving new abortion drugs. That bill, the SAVE Moms and Babies Act, would also to restrict medication abortions so doctors could only give it to patients in person.
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