The Trump administration threatened on Friday to withhold federal money from California if the state does not drop its requirement that private insurers cover abortions.
In an announcement on the morning of the March for Life, the high-profile annual demonstration against anti-abortion rights, the Department of Health and Human Services said it would give California 30 days to commit to lifting the requirement. If the state does not do so, the administration said it will take steps to cut off money from one or more health funding streams.
“People should not be forced to participate, or pay for, or cover other people’s abortions,” said Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration issued a notice of violation, claiming that California was not complying with the federal Weldon Amendment, which says that certain funds can be withheld if a state or local government discriminates against a “health care entity” for not providing or paying for abortions.
The announcement was intended as a warning shot to several other states besides California who have similar requirements that insurers cover abortion, including New York, Oregon and Washington. “We’re sending a message that if any state has done what California has done, they should expect to be found likewise in violation,” Mr. Severino said.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said on Friday that the state would not change its requirement.
“Despite a federal opinion four years ago confirming California’s compliance with the Weldon Amendment, the Trump Administration would rather rile up its base to score cheap political points and risk access to care for millions than do what’s right,” the governor, a Democrat, said in a statement. “California will continue to protect a woman’s right to choose, and we won’t back down from defending reproductive freedom for everybody — full stop.”
Mr. Severino cited two religious organizations that had complained that they felt compelled to obtain insurance that included abortion coverage for their employees: the Skyline Wesleyan Church and the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit, Inc. The latter organization, a Catholic order of religious sisters, previously sued the state of California over the requirement, a lawsuit that was dismissed by an appeals court in August.
“I don’t know how this makes sense to anybody,” Mr. Severino said. “Not only is it the wrong thing to do to force nuns to pay for abortion services for fellow nuns, it’s against the law.”
President Trump, who once said he was “very pro-choice” has worked to earn the support of anti-abortion groups with a series of actions, including preventing organizations that receive federal family planning money from referring patients for abortions and appointing judges to the Supreme Court who have a record of conservative rulings in abortion cases.
Last year on the day of the March for Life, the Trump administration levied a similar accusation against California, saying it violated federal conscience protection amendments with a state law that required religiously-oriented “crisis pregnancy centers” to inform women with unintended pregnancies about the option of abortion. But that federal action appeared to be largely symbolic because the Supreme Court had already struck down the California law on free speech grounds.
The Supreme Court said recently that it would hear a case in which the Trump administration is trying to allow a range of employers with religious or moral objections to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that most insurers provide free coverage of birth control.