During a congressional hearing Wednesday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce on the “policies and priorities of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” Azar spoke on a number of issues, ranging from the global gag rule (GGR) on abortion to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency within HHS tasked with providing care to immigrant minors in federal immigration custody.
Azar’s testimony came as Politico reported the Trump administration is preparing to “release a sweeping plan for reorganizing the federal government that includes a major consolidation of welfare programs—and a renaming of the Health and Human Services Department.”
As Politico reported, the reorganization is “unlikely to be implemented because moving multibillion-dollar programs and renaming federal departments generally require congressional action. But the plan, like the president’s annual budget, demonstrates the administration’s thinking on a range of domestic policy issues.”
During the committee hearing, Azar reiterated President Trump’s commitment to “not funding, supporting, and subsidizing organizations that refer for or support abortion.” Former pastor and current Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) thanked Azar and the Trump administration for “taking a stand” on abortion. Walberg said he wanted it noted “for the record” that “there is no safe abortion” because “a life is always taken.”
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In fact, abortion is overwhelmingly safe, as numerous studies have found, most recently a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
This was following an exchange between Azar and Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), who asked about HHS’ implementation of the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. Reinstated in January 2017, the policy prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. global health funding from providing abortion care or information about the medical procedure. The Trump administration’s version is the most “extreme and sweeping” iteration of the policy yet and “threatens to derail decades of progress,” according to a recent report by the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
While the policy has far-reaching global health-care implications, including forcing those seeking legal abortion to seek out unsafe alternatives, Davis reminded Azar that the last time the policy was enacted, abortion rates rose by 20 percent. Davis asked Azar what evidence HHS had that would suggest implementing GGR would “reduce the rate of abortions or benefit women’s comprehensive health.”
“The important principle that the administration is taking with this policy is to ensure no federal monies are going to support in any way, directly or indirectly, the provision of abortion services abroad,” Azar said.
When asked by Davis how GGR addresses the administration’s purported goal of reducing abortions if GGR increased the number of abortions in past administrations, Azar would only say it achieves the goal “by not funding, supporting, and subsidizing organizations that refer for or support abortion.”
Davis also asked whether GGR would be implemented in the United States, with the administration “pursuing a domestic gag rule.” Azar said that the Trump administration’s proposed Title X regulation “does not include a proposed gag rule” because it allows “non-directive counseling related to abortion services.”
However, as Rewire.News reported last month, the Trump administration is moving to reinstate the domestic gag rule, which would “encourage family participation in a minor’s decision to seek family planning services,” and eliminate the “requirement that [Title X health providers] provide abortion counseling and referral.”
Some advocacy organizations were anticipating questions from members of Congress on the allegations of abuse emerging from ORR. As Rewire.News reported, Scott Lloyd, a Trump appointee, has repeatedly come under fire for implementing a series of harmful policies as ORR director.
An infamous ideologue in the Trump administration, Lloyd became well known for his seemingly never-ending battle to block immigrant teens in ORR custody from accessing abortion care. His handling of abortion access has led to a firestorm of publicity, with advocates accusing him of ushering “anti-choice fanaticism” into the U.S. immigration system and members of Congress calling for him to be fired.
Lloyd also implemented a lesser-known policy requiring that he personally approve any release to a sponsor of an immigrant child who had at one time been in heightened supervision custody placement. This decision was made without analysis or even a count of how many children would be affected by the policy, according to a statement from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). In a deposition with NYCLU attorneys, who are suing ORR to end the practice, Lloyd said that the only documents he considered were news reports about the criminal activity of immigrant minors. In other words, the sole basis of Lloyd’s decision was the Trump administration’s rhetoric conflating immigrant minors with violent gang members. As a result of the policy, children in ORR custody are now being subjected to prolonged detention.
Only two members of the House committee—Reps. Adriano de Jesús Espaillat Cabral (D-NY) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)—used their allotted three minutes to address the condition of children in ORR custody and the Trump administration’s new policy of separating families at the border.
Rep. de Jesús Espaillat Cabral asked about family reunification, while Rep. Bonamici—citing the experience of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who had the cops called on him when he attempted to visit immigrant children in ORR custody—pressed Azar about whether the administration had adequate resources to care for all the additional children being separated from their parents and to fulfill each child’s safety, health, and welfare needs. Bonamici also asked if it was in “the best interest of children” to separate them from their parents at the border.
“Individual children are separated from their parents only when those parents cross the border illegally and are arrested,” Azar responded. “We can’t have children with parents who are in incarceration, so then they are given to me …. So the best advice I have is: Actually present yourself at a legal border crossing and make your case. Cross illegally and get arrested, and your children will be given to us.”
In a statement to Rewire.News, Rep. Bonamici said she “cares deeply about the health and wellbeing of families and children,” and that she is concerned by the Trump administration’s policy of family separation, which she said is “contrary to our nation’s values.”
“Like many across our nation, I’m appalled by stories about children being ripped from their parents at the border. As a mom and policy maker it breaks my heart,” Bonamici said in the statement. “Secretary Azar and his department are responsible for the safe care of these children. Congress has a responsibility to hold the Administration accountable for the wellbeing of all children in their care. Many of these families are following the law and seeking asylum in the [United States], fleeing horrific violence in their home countries. To tear families apart when they arrive is downright cruel. This policy must stop immediately.”