WASHINGTON, D.C. –
California’s Democratic leaders were defiant Friday after the Trump administration threatened to cut federal health care funding to the nation’s most populous state over its requirement that insurance plans cover abortions.
The administration's announcement came hours before President Donald Trump became the first president to address participants in the anti-abortion March for Life in person, telling marchers gathered in the nation's capital that “unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
He spoke after the federal Health and Human Services Department issued a "notice of violation," giving California 30 days to comply with a federal law known as the Weldon amendment. That law bars federal health care funding from being provided to states or entities that practice "discrimination" against a health care organization on the basis that it "does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions."
The head of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, Roger Severino, said California is violating that restriction by requiring insurance plans to cover abortions. According to Severino, 28,000 Californians had abortion-free plans prior to the state's requirements and have now lost that option.
Severino said in a statement that California “must stop forcing people of good will to subsidize the taking of human life.”
Trump later used his speech to attack Democrats as embracing “radical and extreme positions" on abortion, and Democratic leaders responded in kind.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that by taking away the state's health care funding, Trump would be taking tens of billions of dollars from kids, seniors, the poor and the sick.
"And yet you call yourself ‘pro-life’ @realDonaldTrump?" Newsom tweeted. "You sicken me.”
However, Severino did not specify which of many streams of federal health care funds amounting to tens of billions of dollars might be in jeopardy for California. That could include money for community health centers, Medicaid health insurance for low-income people, and basic public health activities such as educating parents about vaccines.
"Our goal is to seek compliance, and we are going to give them 30 days, so we do not have to cross that bridge," said Severino. Other states could also face federal actions.
Newsom said a federal opinion four years ago confirmed California’s compliance with the Weldon amendment. He pledged that California “won't back down” as the Trump administration tries to “rile up its base to score cheap political points.”
Religious conservatives are a core element of Trump's political coalition, and his administration has gone out of its way to deliver on their demands. He also has had a running feud with California’s Democratic leaders, accusing them of failing to do enough to combat the state’s homelessness crisis and failing to properly manage forestland to ease the threat of catastrophic wildfires. California in turn has sued his administration nearly 70 times, about half over environmental issues.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, also was defiant, declaring in a statement that “nothing changes.”
“Women’s health should never be dangled as bait for the sake of political grandstanding," Becerra said, accusing Trump of “using the official levers of government to advance his political agenda.”
Becerra noted the state previously obtained a court injunction a year ago against a rule that would have ended the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage requirement. He also announced Friday that he had asked a federal court to rule on California’s ongoing challenge to a Title X rule that he said would undermine the nation’s only federal family planning program.
It’s the second time in a year that the Trump administration cited California for violating the Weldon amendment. The federal government closed the previous complaint on the grounds that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling had already effectively ended a California law intended to force anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion.
The latest violation was based on complaints from an order of nuns — the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit — and Skyline Wesleyan Church near San Diego.
The nuns lost a lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion coverage requirement and were forced to get insurance coverage that includes abortions.
“All they are looking for is just a respect for their right of conscience,” said their lawyer, Steve Greene. “They’ve been deprived of their right to have coverage that excludes that type of procedure.”
Skyline Wesleyan, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates that brought the earlier pregnancy center lawsuit, and the California ProLife Council and the Right to Life Federation did not respond to requests for comment.
State Senate leader Toni Atkins and Sen. Connie Leyva, who heads the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, both Democrats, both promised that California will not “back down.” Atkins called the timing of the announcement “all too convenient ... as political pressure heats up and the impeachment trial is underway.”
Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who heads a committee on women’s reproductive health, noted that what she called an “assault on women’s reproductive health care” came on the heels of the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade abortion rights decision. She was among Democratic state lawmakers who this week backed Planned Parenthood’s proposals to end co-pays and deductibles for abortions and increase security at abortion clinics, among other goals.
Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington, D.C.