The Trump administration is trying to blackmail California into restricting abortion rights


The Trump administration is in its waning days, and as we barrel toward Jan. 20 we're seeing the lengths that the 45th administration will go to assert its influence and power. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it was following through with an earlier threat by cutting $200 million in federal health care funding to the state of California.

HHS is justifying its actions to cut millions in federal funding based on a previous warning offered to the state, which demanded that California withdraw its mandate that insurance companies cover abortion procedures. The department asserted in January 2020 that the state was violating the Weldon Amendment, a federal law that says the government can't require insurance companies to cover abortion care.

If California refuses to comply with the HHS decision, then the department will cut another $200 million every three months until the standard is met. "Under President Trump, HHS has worked like never before to enforce laws Congress has passed to protect Americans’ religious freedom and conscience rights," said Health Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. "California ... violated federal conscience laws and refused to work with us to take corrective action, so we are now taking action to hold them to account."

But the state disagrees with the notion that its actions violate federal law. One month after HHS issued the warning to the state, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a press release that California is well within its legal rights to assert that insurance companies cover all fundamental health care procedures, which includes abortion care.

"California has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights. Political grandstanding should never interfere with that," Becerra said. "The Trump administration's threats not only put women’s health on the line, but illegally threaten crucial public health funding that Californians rely on ... We fully understand and respect the law. We’ll hold the Trump administration to the same standard."

Trump ran on an anti-abortion campaign platform four years ago and swiftly appointed officials to federal positions who mirrored his beliefs. Azar has gone to bat against California on behalf of the president a number of times, even if it means manipulating the basic rights and care of people who cannot afford health insurance without federal assistance. This end-of-year cut to California's Medicaid funding — the federal health care program for low-income people — is clearly a final effort to manipulate the state into infringing upon the reproductive rights of poor people. Moreover, as California's initial public response to the HHS decision claimed, it appears that the Trump administration is intentionally misinterpreting the federal regulation in order to restrict abortion in California.

Given that Trump is set to leave office in a few weeks, it's unclear if this threat to defund health care will hold water, especially since President-elect Joe Biden tapped Becerra to take over Azar's post at HHS. Both Becerra and Biden support access to abortion for all people who want one, not just those who can afford to pay for it.