As thousands of activists gathered for the country’s largest antiabortion rally on Friday, the Trump administration announced the first enforcement action by its year-old Conscience and Religious Freedom Division — a finding that the state of California violated federal conscience protections.
The action appeared symbolic, since the state law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to provide women with information on how to access free and low-cost abortion services was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 ruling in June. Its announcement came as the administration made a series of overtures to antiabortion activists to promote its track record of advancing anti-abortion judges and regulations and expanding protections for doctors, nurses and others opposed to providing such services.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar struck a personal note Friday morning addressing a conference sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group.
“Thank you for standing up to protect innocent life,” he said. “It can be lonely here in Washington if one is pro-life, and it’s good to know there are others out there supporting you, praying for you and being there with you in this effort.”
Azar said in a statement that HHS would “continue to advance science and improve the health of Americans while protecting our most fundamental freedoms: the right to life and the right of conscience” – sure to be an increasingly difficult balancing act as the agency examines its support of fetal tissue research opposed by religious conservatives and supported by most scientists.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, meanwhile, called the announcement criticizing California’s already-blocked law by the new conscience division at HHS an “empty claim” that “amounts to a political stunt on a day when President Trump’s trying to gin up his shrinking base.”
If California violates the court injunction, it would be subject to enforcement action from the HHS Office for Civil Rights, but the 12-page violation notice says the complaint is considered “satisfactorily resolved” since a District Court had already enjoined the law.
Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the reproductive freedom project at the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned the timing of the finding, months after the law was blocked.
“It feels a little strange, quite frankly, that HHS is doing this now," Amiri said. "There’s a real question about what this accomplishes. Absent anything more, this feels like political grandstanding.”
The Trump administration also released a list of previous actions “protecting life and conscience” on Friday, which critics called a list of talking points for the day’s anti-abortion events. The agency is finalizing regulations that would strengthen enforcement of more than two dozen health-related federal conscience and religious freedom laws. This week, it also issued a proposed rule that would require insurers that offer Affordable Care Act plans that cover abortions beyond cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is threatened to also offer plans that don’t cover those services. The administration is also working to finalize a rule that would prohibit federally funded family planning services from occurring at the same locations where abortions are provided.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court blocked California’s blatant discrimination against nonprofits that give life-affirming options to women facing unplanned pregnancies,” Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement. “Our violation finding underscores not only that California must follow the Constitution, but that it also must respect federal conscience protection laws when it accepts federal funds.”