Last week, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) and Finance committees held hearings on the nomination of Xavier Becerra for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Becerra has drawn significant opposition from pro-life Americans and religious liberty advocates.
Who is Xavier Becerra?
Currently, he serves as the attorney general of California. He succeeded Kamala Harris after she was elected to the United States Senate in 2016. Prior to his appointment as attorney general, he served 12 terms in Congress as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
What is Becerra’s history regarding life and religious liberty issues?
As attorney general, Becerra targeted pregnancy resource centers, pro-life policies and Catholic charities with a range of lawsuits challenging their religious liberty and conscience rights.
In a 2018 Supreme Court case titled National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California, Becerra threatened to shut down pregnancy resource centers serving women and children in crisis. The conflict arose after California passed a law requiring pro-life centers to publicize abortion services provided by the state or face exorbitant fines that would likely run them out of business. Forcing pro-life pregnancy resource centers to advertise for abortions is antithetical to their mission. Thankfully, NIFLA won in a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court.
In possibly his most infamous pursuit, Becerra filed suit to strip conscience protections for religious organizations, such as the Catholic charity Little Sisters of the Poor. The suit was an attempt to force them to violate their consciences by providing coverage of contraception and abortifacients to employees. The Little Sisters of the Poor have appeared before the Supreme Court multiple times, repeatedly asking for, and consistently winning, a religious exemption to the contraceptive mandate from the Affordable Care Act and resulting HHS regulations.
As a member of the House of Representatives, Becerra voted regularly against life-protecting and life-saving bills, including the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. He also voted against the Conscience Protection Act of 2016, which would have prevented the federal government from denying federal funds to Catholic hospitals and other facilities that refuse to perform abortions. Additionally, he opposed investigating Planned Parenthood’s sale of “fetal tissue” leftover from abortion procedures.
In December 2020, when then-President-elect Joe Biden announced Becerra’s nomination for HHS, ERLC president Russell Moore said:
“I expect that, as he undergoes the process of the Senate’s constitutional duty to advise and consent, senators will ask Xavier Becerra about his troubling hostility to pregnancy resource centers and other faith-based institutions during his tenure as California attorney general, and whether such actions would characterize his potential leadership at HHS. The country desperately needs an HHS Department that can help unify and mobilize, not one that will further divide us. The new HHS secretary, a position that is crucially important but never more so than during a global pandemic, should have the coronavirus as enemy number one, not Americans with differing religious convictions.”
What happened at the Senate hearings last week?
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) opened the hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions by highlighting Becerra’s experience as a congressman and as California’s attorney general. Democratic Senators tended to ask questions regarding Becerra’s commitment to healthcare access, high drug prices, and the vaccine rollout. Republicans raised concerns over rural healthcare funding, excessive government regulations and abortion.
Abortion was first brought up in Sen. Mike Braun’s (R-Ind.) opening question. Noting Becerra’s history on the issue, Braun asked if he would commit to “not using taxpayer money to fund abortions and abortion providers.” Becerra largely dodged the question and said that he is “committed to following the law regarding federal resources,” which leaves the door open for taxpayer funded abortions should the Hyde Amendment be repealed – a move congressional Democrats have signaled they attempt this year. The Indiana Senator also mentioned Becerra’s antipathy toward religious liberty, specifically his actions against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also addressed abortion by pressing Becerra to explain his vote against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Becerra responded that he understands that people have deeply held beliefs and that he was sure they could find some “common ground.” Romney responded that partial-birth abortion is not an issue on which there is common ground.
In the Senate Finance Committee hearing the next day, Becerra’s stances on abortion and religious liberty were questioned again by Republican lawmakers. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) began by saying that Becerra sued the federal government more than 100 times as California’s attorney general – including multiple instances regarding conscience protections. In light of these lawsuits, Lankford asked if Becerra would “continue to enforce existing federal law on conscience issues” that he had argued against all the way to the Supreme Court. Lankford further pressed Becerra, asking whether or not faith-based entities would receive grants or aid “at the same level as non-faith based entities.” Becerra struggled to respond and again gave a general response that he would uphold the laws as written.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said that he has serious concerns regarding Becerra’s “extreme” stance on both abortion and religious liberty. He asked Becerra if he could name “one abortion restriction he might support.” Once again, Becerra responded simply that he would “follow the law.”
After a brief recess, Becerra failed to give a more substantive answer when Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) pressed him on enforcement of Obamacare’s contraception mandate and accused him of “bullying” the Little Sisters of the Poor.
How has the ERLC been involved?
The ERLC joined more than 60 pro-life organizations to send a Congressional letter highlighting concerns with Becerra’s nomination. Additionally, the ERLC submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court for Becerra’s cases against the Little Sisters of the Poor and NIFLA.
If he passes both committee votes, Becerra will receive a floor vote and would need 50 votes to be confirmed. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) identifies as pro-life and has previously voted in favor of pro-life pieces of legislation such as the Born-Alive bill and the Pain Capable bill. It’s unclear whether Manchin will raise concerns about Becerra’s troubling pro-abortion track record.