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Marshall Presses Becerra on Abortion Drugs: ‘COVID-19 is No Excuse for Sloppy Medicine’

Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks during his confirmation hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 23, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters Pool)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra defended his previous efforts to increase access to chemical abortion drugs amid the coronavirus pandemic during his confirmation hearing to become Health and Human Services secretary on Tuesday.

Senator Roger Marshall (R., Kansas), who is an OB/GYN, questioned Becerra’s support for “removing current safety regulations” that require people to obtain abortion drugs in-person. The senator said that while he had never prescribed RU-486 himself, he had cared for people suffering from its complications in the emergency room.

In March, Becerra led a coalition of 21 attorneys general in asking the FDA to increase access to reproductive telehealth care, including lifting the in-person restriction on chemical abortion, the most common method of abortion in the first ten weeks of pregnancy.

He asked for Becerra’s position on the issue, adding that he has concern for both the physical and emotional care of anyone who has taken RU-486, also known as mifepristone, one of two drugs used in chemical abortions.

“These drugs do have serious complications,” Marshall added. “I do want women to have access to family planning but RU-486 very much concerns me.”

“When I took action along with many of my state agent colleagues it was to try to make sure that all Americans had access to the care they needed without having to worry about COVID becoming a danger,” Becerra replied. “The fact that we are able to dispense care without having to have our families actually show up at the doctor’s office now through telehealth and other means is something we should really build on and any obstacles to getting safe care should be removed.”

“Our letter that we directed on RU-486 was to make sure that women who wanted to take advantage of health services that they had within their reach didn’t have to do so through risking the contraction of COVID in order to get that healthcare,” he said. “That was the purpose of that letter, was to make sure that like any American we don’t jeopardize the health through the contracting of COVID for Americans who need to access certain care.”

Marshall shot back that while he is “in favor of telemedicine” that “COVID is not an excuse for sloppy medicine.”

The restriction on RU-486, also called mifepristone, has been the subject of a months-long battle. 

“As communities across the nation shelter in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we must ensure that women can continue to safely access essential health services including safe and legal abortion,” Becerra said in a statement in March 2020. “Forcing women to unnecessarily seek in-person reproductive healthcare during this public health crisis is foolish and irresponsible. That’s why we’re calling on the Trump Administration to remove red tape that makes it more difficult for women to access the medication abortion prescription drug.”

The in-person requirement was initially suspended by a federal judge in July in response to a lawsuit by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In August, Becerra joined an amicus brief supporting the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other groups in opposing the FDA’s motion for stay of the district court ruling halting the in-person restrictions.

“It’s 2020, not 1920 – the FDA needs to join the 21st century and remove barriers to telehealth services, including care that women rely on for safe and legal abortion,” Becerra said in a statement then. “The FDA’s restrictive policy on Mifepristone targets women — and only women — forcing them to go in person to a doctor’s office to retrieve their prescription. These restrictions are dated and unnecessarily put women in harm’s way during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. We’re proud to fight against these draconian restrictions and protect women’s healthcare, including the right to safe and legal abortion.”

However, the Trump administration appealed the July ruling to the Supreme Court. Though the high court first declined to intervene in October, it voted 6-3 in January to reinstitute the restrictions.

Now Democrats are urging the Biden administration to end restrictions on chemical abortions.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee earlier this month called on the Food and Drug Administration to “immediately eliminate” the in-person restriction. Some abortion-rights groups have called on the agency to permanently lift the restrictions.

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