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HHS Secretary Becerra on federal abortion rights

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Almost immediately after last week's Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, President Biden condemned the decision. And today his Health and Human Services secretary vowed to take steps to protect women's reproductive health. He called last week's ruling, quote, "despicable." Secretary Xavier Becerra joins us now. Welcome back, Mr. Secretary, to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

XAVIER BECERRA: Juana, thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: You've said that you want to take every action necessary to protect women's reproductive health care. What sort of actions is the administration prepared to take now?

BECERRA: Well, we want women first to know that the Friday decision by the Supreme Court didn't eliminate their rights. It did make it more difficult for them to exercise them. And so we want to make sure, first and foremost, that Americans have correct information. But secondly, we want them to know that we will work with our partners at the local level, public and private, to make sure that women continue to receive the reproductive care that they need.

SUMMERS: As I understand, when this decision came down, you were in the state of Missouri at the last remaining abortion site in that state. Tell us what it was like there.

BECERRA: I was scheduled to be in St. Louis to visit with the Planned Parenthood program. The word came out that the Supreme Court ruling had been issued. You could see the silence, the shock, the tears. It was clear that this had a very impactful resonance with those who were in that room.

SUMMERS: You've said that you plan to do what you can at the federal level. Help us understand in a little bit more detail what that might look like.

BECERRA: The reality, the tale of two cities, here in America today is that you can be in one state and not have the right to receive abortion care and just cross the state line and still have that care. And what we're going to try to do is make sure that whatever options a woman has available to her, we'll try to help her exercise those options. So if she needs to travel, we're going to try to be supportive of those who are trying to help make that possible. We're going to do what we can, although it's unclear exactly what we can do in all the states because not all the states have acted.

SUMMERS: As you point out, people in many states - as the situation is in Missouri and neighboring Illinois - they now have to travel for other states for abortion procedures. How can they be sure that they won't be prosecuted when they return home?

BECERRA: That's where getting the right information, correct information, becomes so important. And that's why we wanted to speak out early to let people know that they still have rights. And there are certain obligations that states have, regardless of what the Dobbs decision says. And so in those states that have now banned abortion, if those states receive Medicaid funding, they must still abide by federal law, which in some cases provides women access with abortion care services.

SUMMERS: One thing that I've heard from a number of progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill is they've suggested a list of actions they'd like to see the administration lean into. One of the things that has come up a number of times is the idea of building abortion clinics on federal land. Is that the sort of proposal that you could see yourself supporting at some point in the future?

BECERRA: We are aware of different proposals to try to locate some of these clinics in places that would not be subject to those state laws that ban abortion. We are looking at every option. We haven't made any decisions yet, but we are certainly familiar with some of those options that are being discussed.

SUMMERS: You've said repeatedly that you want to ensure that people have the correct information, that they have accurate information about what their rights are right now. What is the best way for them to get that information? Is it through HHS? Is there somewhere they should be looking?

BECERRA: Certainly, first and foremost, speak to those who you trust for medical advice. Then, if you're needing more information, certainly the folks at Planned Parenthood offer tremendously helpful information. And then, of course, they certainly can reach out to HHS. If they go to reproductiverights.gov, they will access information that we make available to try to explain much of this information.

SUMMERS: I know that you have been focused on the policy aspects of this in the law, but I do have to ask you one political question. Republicans in this country have spent the last 50 years working to end the right to an abortion in America. Do you feel that the Democratic Party, do you feel that leaders in Washington, have done enough to protect that right so far?

BECERRA: Well, I would simply say that, as Americans, it is incumbent on us to protect the rights of Americans. When I served in Congress for 24 years, my efforts were always to try to be inclusive and protect people's rights, not to be exclusive and strip people of rights. And so to watch the Supreme Court move unconscionably to strip so many millions of Americans of their rights to health care is, as I said before, not only despicable, but it - I don't believe will last because I don't think that's what America is about.

SUMMERS: Xavier Becerra is the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Thank you so much for joining us today.

BECERRA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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