US Health and Human Services announces efforts to combat Texas’ new abortion law

An ultrasound machine sits next to an empty patient bed at Whole Womens Health of Austin on Sept. 1, 2021.
An ultrasound machine sits next to an empty patient bed at Whole Womens Health of Austin on Sept. 1, 2021.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced Friday that resources and actions would be placed in effect as a federal response to Texas’ new abortion law, SB8.

In a news release, the White House said the measures are to “to protect reproductive health care for Texans, in response to President Joe Biden’s directive.”

FILE - In this June 10, 2021 file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on President Joe Biden's budget request, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Biden administration health officials Monday announced a new office that will prod hospitals to cut carbon emissions, and provide greener, more environmentally friendly medical care.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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The news release added, “Following the passage of SB 8, President Biden launched a whole-of-government response and directed HHS to explore options to bolster access to safe and legal abortions in Texas.”

The Justice Department filed suit against Texas last week over SB 8, saying that it was enacted “in open defiance of the Constitution” and asks a federal judge to declare that the law is invalid, “to enjoin its enforcement, and to protect the rights that Texas has violated.”

The Texas Tribune reported the law is one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws — which bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy -- before some women know they’re pregnant. The U.S. Supreme Court did not take action on an emergency appeal by Texas abortion providers.

HHS says it will “(provide) grant support for clinics, and resources that outline protections for health care personnel, and reinforcement of legal protections for pregnant individuals or persons experiencing pregnancy loss in Texas.”

“Every American deserves access to health care no matter where they live – including access to safe and legal abortions,” Becerra is quoted as saying in a news release. “For decades, both in Congress and as California’s Attorney General, I’ve stood with women in the fight for reproductive justice and access to care under Roe vs. Wade. Now, in response to President Biden’s directive, HHS is taking actions to support and protect both patients and providers from this dangerous attack on Texans’ health care. Today we are making clear that doctors and hospitals have an obligation under federal law to make medical decisions regarding when it’s appropriate to treat their patients. And we are telling doctors and others involved in the provision of abortion care, that we have your back.”

As written in the news release, this is the three-pronged department-wide response from HHS:

1. Title X Grant Support for Providers. Last week, Title X grantees received nearly $19 million to support expansion of family planning services. HHS Office for Population Affairs (OPA) will award additional funding to Every Body Texas, a current Title X family planning grantee, to respond to the anticipated increase in clients’ needs for emergency contraception and family planning services. Second, OPA plans to award up to $10 million in grants to expand access to emergency contraception and family planning services to any Title X services eligible applicant that can demonstrate a need resulting from an influx of clients as a result of SB 8 as well as states around the country with increased needs overall. This funding opportunity, entitled: Funding to Address Dire Need for Family Planning Services, can be accessed here.

2. Enforcement of Nondiscrimination Against Health Care Providers. The HHS Office for Civil Rights enforces the Church Amendments, which protect health care personnel from employment discrimination who object to performing abortion, sterilization, and biomedical or behavioral research activities because of their religious beliefs or moral convictions. This law also protects health care personnel from discrimination related to their employment because they performed or assisted with a lawful abortion. Today’s guidance outlines protections that prohibit recipients of grants, loans, contracts, or loan guarantees under the Public Health Service Act from discriminating in the employment, promotion, or termination of employment of any physician or other health care personnel because the individual performed or assisted in the performance of an abortion. OCR can receive complains from individuals who believe they may have been discriminated against in violation of the Church Amendments. To file a complaint, visit: https://ocrportal.hhs.gov/ocr/smartscreen/main.jsf

3. Enforcement of Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and Medicare Conditions of Participation. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid issued a memorandum to providers reinforcing EMTALA and legal obligations specific to pregnant patients or patients experiencing pregnancy loss. The EMTALA statute requires that all patients receive an appropriate medical screening, stabilizing treatment, and transfer, if necessary, irrespective of any state laws or mandates that apply to specific procedures. A physician’s professional and legal duty to provide medical treatment to a patient who presents to the emergency department and is found to have an emergency medical condition preempts any directly conflicting state law or mandate that might seek to prevent such treatment. Civil monetary penalties may be imposed against hospitals or individual physicians for EMTALA violations. Additionally, physicians may also be subject to exclusion from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.


About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, social media news and local crime.