Published March 18, 2022
March 18 marks one year since pro-abortion radical Xavier Becerra was confirmed as President Joe Biden’s appointee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Although both men claim to be faithful Catholics, they have launched unprecedented attacks on people of faith by eliminating vital conscience and religious freedom protections and funneling millions of taxpayer dollars to the abortion industry.
At the HHS Accountability Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., we have been keeping tabs on HHS personnel and policy. The oft-heard maxim “personnel is policy” is no exception for HHS, the largest federal agency by budget. While Becerra was AWOL on the Covid fight, he was outright zealous on culture war issues, leading HHS’s singular focus on pushing pro-abortion and anti-religion policies on the American people.
Here are the top 10 lowlights for year one.
1. Dismantling HHS’s Conscience and Religious Freedom Division
One of Becerra’s early acts as secretary was to strip the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of its independent ability to investigate violations of conscience and religious freedom laws. The division was created during the Trump administration to guarantee enforcement rather than neglect of laws that protect these fundamental and inalienable rights.
Becerra’s first budget proposal would have effectively eliminated this division as a standalone entity, despite Becerra having promised Congress that “the work [of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division] will not change.” He, along with OCR political staff (such as political ideologue Laura Durso), refused to even consult with the dedicated career professionals of the division while they methodically removed conscience and religious freedom protections from the American people.
These developments were foreshadowed by transgender activist Dr. Rachel Levine who, prior to being elevated to the number-three position at HHS, proclaimed the division should be “either disbanded or certainly redirected.”
2. Removing OCR’s First Amendment Enforcement Power
Becerra removed OCR’s authority to enforce conscience and religious projections under the bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. A leaked memo revealed this move came at the request of Lisa Pino, the Biden-appointed director of OCR. She is tasked with enforcing civil rights protections in health and human services, not finding ways to remove them.
Remember, it was HHS under Obama that went after the Little Sisters of the Poor and lost under RFRA. Now Becerra has removed the only internal entity that would hold HHS accountable to the law.
3. Pushing a Ridiculously ‘Woke’ Budget
The Biden-Becerra HHS budget for fiscal year 2022 removed references to “conscience,” “religion,” and “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.” But don’t worry, the new budget replaces references to these constitutional and statutory rights HHS is responsible for enforcing with a bunch of woke terms like “equity” — the Biden administration’s preferred priority.
4. Backing Forcing Nuns to Pay for Abortion
While Becerra was attorney general of California before becoming HHS secretary, OCR issued two notices of violation against Becerra and his state for violating federal conscience protections by forcing nuns (and others) to provide insurance coverage of abortion. Apart from the clear conflict of interest with Becerra leading the very office that previously found him in violation of the law, OCR under Becerra “reassessed” the conscience violations, magically finding there were none.
5. Abandoning Nurse Illegally Forced to Participate in Abortion
In 2019, OCR found a hospital had violated a nurse’s conscience rights by forcing her to participate in an abortion over her known conscience objection. When the hospital refused to change its policies to comply with the law, the federal government sued the hospital in federal court.
But on Becerra’s watch and despite his many promises to continue enforcing federal conscience laws, the Biden administration quietly dismissed the case without any settlement, agreement, or compensation for the nurse. Because federal conscience protection laws do not provide a private right of action, she cannot sue on her own and the violating hospital has been let off with impunity.
6. Relentlessly Pushing Abortion With Federal Resources
In response to Texas’ law protecting unborn children with beating hearts from abortion, the Biden-Becerra HHS announced, despite prohibitions on federal funds going to abortion, ways the department could “bolster access to safe and legal abortions in Texas.” HHS is awarding $10 million in additional funding to increase access to abortifacients for those affected by the Texas law.
OCR issued pro-abortion guidance explaining how a federal conscience protection law can protect abortion providers and patients seeking abortions. If HHS’s actions weren’t clear enough, Becerra stated, “We are telling doctors and others involved in the provision of abortion care, that we have your back.” Becerra and OCR clearly don’t want to enforce the law for those who do not want to participate in abortion.
7. Directly Funding Big Abortion
Becerra, who has oddly and repeatedly refused to acknowledge that partial-birth abortion is illegal, led HHS’s charge to fund Big Abortion. In 2021, Planned Parenthood received more than $5.4 million in taxpayer funds from HHS, an amount that is sure to increase over the next three years.
In an effort to further fund Planned Parenthood, the Biden-Becerra HHS ignored democratic norms to rush through new Title X regulations. Title X is a federal program that provides grants for a range of family planning services, but per the statute, such services cannot include abortion.
The new regulations, however, remove the requirement of physical and financial separation between Title X projects and abortion services, require abortion counseling and referrals, and remove conscience protections for Title X providers. Planned Parenthood had dropped out of the Title X program under those regulations, forfeiting that funding stream, but under the new regulations the abortion giant is expected to receive significant Title X funding.
8. Comingling Insurance Payments for Abortion
Last summer, HHS rushed through new insurance regulations that, contrary to the text of the Affordable Care Act, no longer require separate insurance payments for abortion services, allowing those payments to be comingled with payments for other covered services. Besides violating the law, combined payments create a lack of transparency and accountability. Consumers with conscience objections to abortion will no longer be on notice that their insurance plan covers abortion or that they are subsidizing abortions, including for any adult children on their plan.
9. Rescinding Faith-Based Waivers
Prompting a congressional inquiry, the Biden-Becerra HHS gratuitously rescinded waivers previously issued to faith-based adoption and foster care agencies in Michigan, South Carolina, and Texas that allowed the agencies to qualify for HHS grants while operating in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs. In the press release announcing the rescission, Becerra unironically stated: “At HHS, we treat any violation of civil rights or religious freedoms seriously.”
Please. This action comes on the heels of a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court affirming the constitutional right of foster-care agencies to act according to their religious beliefs on human sexuality in certifying foster parents.
10. Issuing Totalitarian Anti-Conscience Rules
HHS announced its new interpretation and enforcement of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that would force health-care professionals to perform gender transition surgeries and provide minors with harmful and sterilizing puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones. A new rule codifying this interpretation is anticipated in April and would likely not exempt providers with medical or conscience objections. HHS is also planning to rescind conscience regulations that protect health-care professionals from being forced to assist with abortions and protect others from having to pay for abortions.
Rachel N. Morrison is an attorney and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on EPPC’s HHS Accountability Project.
Photo: Gage Skidmore