WATERBURY, CT – Despite a flurry of ideas from Connecticut advocates, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declined Tuesday to commit the Biden administration to a strategy for preserving access to abortions as states across the country begin to ban them.
After touring a Planned Parenthood clinic with state officials in Waterbury, Becerra told reporters that Connecticut residents were lucky their access to reproductive health care had been preserved in the aftermath of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
“To everyone in Connecticut, I hope you understand how fortunate you are to have a great team but more importantly have rights, to have freedoms, to have that autonomy. Unfortunately as of a week or so ago — a little bit more than a week ago — not every American can say that today. But that’s what we’re here to change.”
Eight states have adopted some form of an abortion bans since June 24, when the divided court reversed the long-standing policy making abortion legal nationwide. More states are expected to follow.
Becerra said the administration had already begun talks with health insurance providers to remind them that federal law includes contraceptive coverage requirements and intended to remind states accepting Medicaid funding that the federal dollars required them to cover emergency care services, which in some cases include abortion services.
However, the secretary was reluctant to immediately endorse other strategies offered by state officials and providers on Tuesday. Becerra said he did not want to make promises the administration couldn’t deliver.
“As you can see from what the Supreme Court did, it took a 50-year-old right and flushed it down the toilet,” Becerra said. “We want to make sure that what we say we’ll do, we will do. We want to make sure it’s not a ‘could’ but a ‘will.’ We don’t want to spread any misinformation.”
Among the ideas which Becerra said he would explore was the declaration of a public health crisis to enable the use of federal dollars to help women seeking services in states that had outlawed them.
Amanda Skinner, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, said the crisis funding could be used to support providers or people who need to travel outside their own state to access abortion care.
“It is not fair or just or equitable to expect people to travel thousands of miles for basic health care and yet that is a burden we are putting on people in this country right now,” Skinner said. “It is possible and certainly our ask is to explore all opportunities to try to address some of those barriers.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal suggested that a national emergency could also allow providers to send pregnancy-ending pills to patients following telehealth appointments. Blumenthal said providers may also be able to utilize federal lands to offer services in areas where abortions have been banned.
Blumenthal said he was among 24 senators who had written to President Joe Biden asking him to weigh the option.
“We’ve urged that he consider using federal land, not necessarily for clinics but at least to provide some services, to enable certain kinds of health care that could be immune from state law and state restrictions,” Blumenthal said.
Skinner said Planned Parenthood had seen an increase in patients traveling to Connecticut for services since Texas adopted sweeping abortion restrictions last September. She said she expected to see another surge of out-of-state patients depending on the laws adopted in other states.
“Every single state is going to pass their own laws– sort of all bets are off and we don’t know what to anticipate in that way,” Skinner said. “We’re prepared to be there for anybody who needs us.”
As a result of legislative action ahead of the Supreme Court decision, Connecticut law now includes protections for doctors that treat patients who travel to the state in order to provide abortion services.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont said the state could serve as an example to others across the country.
“Today, I want this to be a role model for the rest of the country, Secretary Becerra, I hope other states can see allowing women to make the choices for themselves and when they’re ready to have the child, make sure it’s the healthiest baby it can be.”