By Julie Asher | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As President-elect Joe Biden systematically announces his Cabinet nominees, one selection has already become a culture war flashpoint.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Biden’s choice to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has stirred the partisan fires Biden says he hopes to quell.
On the one hand, the head of the Catholic Health Association praised Becerra for a career spent “fighting for underserved communities” and his efforts “to protect the welfare of immigrants and migrants.”
But National Right to Life and other pro-life leaders criticized Becerra “as an abortion activist plain and simple,” citing NARAL Pro-Choice America’s 100% rating for his record on abortion during his 25 years in Congress.
If confirmed, he would be “the most pro-abortion HHS secretary ever,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.
Becerra also sued the Trump administration for expanding the religious exemption to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate in 2017 to fully accommodate the Little Sisters of the Poor’s refusal on religious grounds to cover contraceptives and abortifacients in their employee health care plan.
He argued the federal government was inserting itself into the state’s “sovereign duty” to protect women’s “reproductive rights.”
The religious order ultimately prevailed on July 8 of this year when the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in their favor in a similar challenge from Pennsylvania.
News reports Dec. 5 speculated Biden would pick Becerra for HHS secretary and he officially announced the nomination early Dec. 7. Becerra, 62, would be the first Latino to hold the position.
Also as part of his administration’s health care team, Biden has nominated Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a Harvard infectious disease expert, to head the Centers for Disease Control, and Dr. Vivek Murthy to be U.S. surgeon general, as he was under President Barack Obama.
Biden named another former Obama administration official, Jeff Zients, as his White House coronavirus coordinator. Becerra and Murthy must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
A native of Sacramento, California, Becerra was sworn in Jan. 24, 2017, as California’s 33rd attorney general. He’s the first Latino to hold the office in the history of the state. He succeeded Kamala Harris, now vice president-elect, in the post after she was elected to the U.S. Senate Nov. 8, 2016.
Before that, Becerra served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress, Becerra worked in 2009 to get the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act through Congress, leading to its successful passage in 2010. As California’s attorney general, he has defended the ACA in court.
Currently, he is the head attorney in a group of attorneys general from Democratic-led states defending the law against the Trump administration’s lawsuit to have it overturned.
The son of immigrants, Becerra served one term in the California Legislature before his election to Congress. He is a former deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice.
Becerra, who has a law degree from Stanford Law School, and his wife, Dr. Caroline Reyes, a physician who specializes in maternal and fetal health, have three daughters.
“Becerra has been a strong partner with CHA in defending the Affordable Care Act and for advocating for greater access to quality, affordable health care coverage for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable,” said Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, who is CHA’s president and CEO. “I look forward to working with him to advance policies that address inequities of care in communities burdened by poverty and injustice.”
As HHS secretary, Becerra would be Biden’s chief health care officer and a key leader in his administration’s plan for addressing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including a strategy for distributing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is placing extraordinary pressure on families and communities across the country and our members are striving daily to meet their needs during these unprecedented times,” Sister Haddad said.
“As we continue to address the public health crisis before us, it will take a highly coordinated federal response to bring the virus under control and stabilize our nation’s health care delivery system,” she added.
While others have criticized Biden’s choice of Becerra because the nominee has no front-line experience in the medical field, it is Becerra’s record on abortion that is most concerning to pro-life leaders.
“Joe Biden and his supporters may pretend that he is a ‘moderate’ but with nominees such as Xavier Becerra, he is showing that he is marching lockstep with the abortion industry,” said National Right to Life’s Tobias in a statement.
“As California’s attorney general, Becerra repeatedly and aggressively attacked protective pro-life laws and organizations with rancor,” she said. “While a congressman, he had a 100% pro-abortion voting record.”
Among other actions in Congress, Becerra voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would prevent abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy “when extensive evidence shows an unborn child is capable of feeling great pain,” National Right to Life said.
He also voted against a law to prevent the interstate transport of minors “for the express purpose of obtaining an abortion without the parents’ knowledge or permission.”
“Becerra is aggressively pro-abortion and a foe of free speech,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, pointing to Becerra’s defense of a 2018 California law requiring pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs advertising referrals for abortion providers. The law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In response to a Catholic News Service request for comment on the criticism of Becerra over abortion, a CHA spokesman said in a Dec. 9 email: “We share the concerns about Mr. Becerra’s position on abortion and will continue to advocate for laws and policies that protect the unborn.
“We will also continue to advocate for federal conscience protections that allow our members to follow the ethical standards rooted in and inseparable from church teachings about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”
Spokesman Brian Reardon said CHA also recognizes “there are important issues that Pope Francis has raised regarding immigration, the environment and social justice that align with positions Mr. Becerra has taken.”
“While we may not agree with every position taken by our elected officials and policymakers,” he added, “we take seriously Pope Francis’ call to work for ‘the culture of encounter’ and strive to find common ground where we can advance policies that improve the health and well-being of the most vulnerable among us.”
In her statement, Dannenfelser also criticized Becerra for, like Harris, “persecuting citizen journalists who exposed Planned Parenthood’s role in baby-parts trafficking.”
Dannenfelser was referring to David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress. They have been charged with nine felony counts of violating California’s anti-eavesdropping law for their undercover investigative videos filmed in 2015 showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fees related to selling fetal tissue, which is illegal.
Daleiden and Merritt pleaded not guilty to the charges in February of this year.
The two posed as representatives of a mythical fetal tissue procurement firm, in the same way animal rights activists taped undercover videos to show abuse in the poultry industry, which led Harris to launch an investigation of that industry.
After Daleiden and Merritt’s videos were released in October 2015, Planned Parenthood said it broke no laws and was rightfully being reimbursed for making fetal tissue available for research. But it also announced it would no longer accept payment to cover costs of the program.