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Politics & Policy

Becerra Denies Existence of Federal Ban on Partial-Birth Abortion

Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, answers questions during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill, February 24, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

At a congressional hearing last week, Health and Human Services Department secretary Xavier Becerra seemed to suggest that there is no law prohibiting partial-birth–abortion procedures, ignoring the 2003 federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which he himself voted against and which the Supreme Court upheld in 2007.

During the hearing, held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Gus Bilirakis (R., Fla.) asked Becerra whether he believes partial-birth abortion is illegal. Partial-birth abortion, otherwise known as “intact dilation and extraction,” involves inducing labor and partially delivering a fetus for the purpose of aborting him during birth.

In response, Becerra deflected: “There is no medical term like partial-birth abortion, and so I would probably have to ask you what you mean by that to describe what is allowed by the law.”

He went on to insist that “Roe v. Wade is very clear, settled precedent,” giving a woman “the right to make decisions about her reproductive health,” which he said he will enforce as head of HHS.

When Bilirakis pressed him on the point, Becerra continued to insist that “there is no law that deals specifically with the term partial-birth abortion,” before asserting that the correct term for the procedure is “dilation and extraction.”

That Becerra would attempt to deny the existence of the partial-birth–abortion ban is quite odd considering that he himself voted against the bill when he served as a congressman from California — and he admitted as much during his confirmation hearing for the post at HHS, when he defended his vote in response to a question from Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah).

Becerra’s effort to focus on the terminology of “partial-birth abortion” versus “dilation and extraction” is a common strategy from supporters of unlimited legal abortion. In fact, his own defenders used a similar line when the subject came up during his confirmation hearings.

“‘Partial birth abortion’ is not a medical term; it’s a fabrication of the right wing,” tweeted NARAL president Ilyse Hogue in response to Romney’s questioning of Becerra.

But of course, the specific label we use to describe this procedure matters very little. What is of consequence is what takes place in a partial-birth abortion and whether it should be permitted. Becerra, who is now tasked with enforcing the nation’s health-care laws, appears to believe it ought to be — regardless of the fact that it’s illegal.

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