White House debates declaring abortion access a ‘health emergency’


White House officials are actively debating whether to formally declare abortion access a public health emergency, pitting the belief of many Biden advisers that such a move would be counterproductive in the face of political pressure. overwhelming to show they are fighting hard for abortion rights.

Several senior Biden officials have expressed internal reservations about declaring an emergency, saying it would give the administration little money and few new powers, according to a White House official and two people familiar with the issues. conversations. And outside legal experts advising the administration have warned that declaring an emergency would face inevitable legal challenges, potentially giving conservative justices an opportunity to curtail the administration’s emergency authority.

Chief of staff Ron Klain and senior adviser Anita Dunn are among those who don’t see a compelling case for the move, but Klain told others he would be open to it if he could be persuaded it would allow the administration to do more, according to the three people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last month, President Biden faced tremendous pressure from liberal activists and Democratic lawmakers to push his executive authority to the limit of protecting abortion access. Biden has been criticized for responding too lukewarm to the decision, though he has used more forceful rhetoric and taken a number of actions in recent days, issuing an executive order last week to protect access to abortion drugs. and emergency contraception.

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Biden has repeatedly said he believes the best way to protect reproductive rights is to elect more Democrats to Congress so that federal legislation can be passed to legalize abortion. But many Democrats are furious with the Supreme Court’s decision and want to see the president hit back hard now.

A growing number of lawmakers have urged Biden to declare a public health emergency to signal how seriously he views the threat and to potentially unlock new funding and authorities. More than 80 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to Biden on Tuesday asking for such a statement. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and several reproductive rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, have also called for the move.

“The administration should use all authorities and emergency and disaster tools at its disposal, including immediately declaring a public health emergency,” said Laurel Sakai, national director of public policy and government at Planned. Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement. “A crisis of this magnitude requires that all avenues be considered and explored as the administration continues to respond to the deluge of attacks on our reproductive freedom.”

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Biden said Sunday he was debating whether to declare access to abortion a public health emergency. “It’s something that I’ve asked the…doctors in the administration to look into, if…I have the authority to do it and what impact it would have,” Biden said.

Public health emergency declarations officially come from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. They are typically used to deal with disease outbreaks and weather disasters, allowing the HHS secretary to more easily move department funds. During the coronavirus pandemic, the declaration also relaxed healthcare rules significantly, for example by making it easier for doctors to hold telehealth appointments.

But it’s much less clear how such a statement would play out on an issue such as abortion, in part because the “emergency” may not end for the foreseeable future. Complicating the problem further is the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion unless a pregnant person’s life is in danger or the pregnancy results from rape or incest.

“The key for the president and our entire team is to make a real difference, which is why we always continue to explore a wide range of options and a public health emergency,” said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said in a statement. “There are limitations and downsides that we are all aware of, but North Star for Everyone has the right impact, which is how we look at every tool to protect women’s rights.”

Besides Klain and Dunn, others within the White House who have expressed concerns about the move include Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Jennifer Klein, Co-Chair of the House Gender Policy Council. White.

Still, a high-profile emergency declaration defiantly announced by Biden could help the White House politically by showing activists and lawmakers that it is pursuing all available options. Doctors and abortion advocates have argued that abortion bans and restrictions, enacted by Republican-led states across the country, will put millions of women at risk by cutting off access to life-saving medical treatment, including for those who experience miscarriages.

A public health emergency declaration for covid-19 has been in place for more than two years, tying up a large amount of emergency health funding. That means only tens of thousands of dollars would be available if the declaration was made for abortion, the White House official said. Senior White House officials also don’t know what kinds of new authorities the statement would provide.

And that decision would inevitably face legal challenges from Republican state attorneys general, likely ending up before the same Supreme Court justices who struck down the constitutional right to abortion. Legal experts warn that judges — or conservative judges in lower courts — could end up restricting federal emergency powers in response to a declaration of a public health emergency for an issue such as abortion.

The Supreme Court struck down significant parts of Biden’s covid-19 program, including a vaccination mandate for companies with more than 100 employees. A conservative federal judge also overturned a federal mask mandate on public transit, a move that health and legal experts say could challenge the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a crisis. sanitary.

Even with all the complications, White House officials have yet to rule out an emergency declaration. They are still trying to determine if there is a version of such a decision that would allow the administration to take meaningful action, the White House official said.

While Biden officials want to implement every possible policy to protect access to abortion, the official added, many on Biden’s team believe they haven’t heard from anyone yet. convincing arguments in favor of this decision.

That’s not the view of liberal groups such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which held a virtual meeting with Becerra on Wednesday.

Representative Judy Chu (D-California), a member of the group, said she was among those who lobbied for the White House to declare a public health emergency over abortion access, and that she directly asked Becerra about it during the Encounter.

“I raised the matter with Secretary Becerra today, and the response is that they are investigating the matter,” Chu said. “They’re thinking about it more deeply, and I just hope they make a positive statement about it, because American women are looking for something bold to protect them. And I think that would be a bold step.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.

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