Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET
Just hours before President Trump addressed thousands of anti-abortion rights activists at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., his administration has given its attendees reason to cheer.
The Office of Civil Rights, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, announced Friday that it is taking action against California for requiring private insurers to cover abortions. The office says the requirement, implemented in 2014, violates federal conscience protections for health care providers that refuse to perform certain services on religious or moral grounds.
“Regardless of what one thinks about the legality of abortion, the American people have spoken with one voice to say that people should not be forced to participate, pay for or cover other people’s abortions,” office Director Roger Severino told reporters on a conference call ahead of the formal announcement.
“The Weldon amendment is very clear,” Severino added, referring to a federal measure that was passed by Congress more than a decade ago and repeatedly renewed as part of the department’s appropriations. “If states receive federal funds from HHS and other agencies, they cannot discriminate against health plans that decline to cover or pay for abortions — period, full stop.”
The notice issued to California on Friday demands that the state “signal its intent to come into compliance with the law or face appropriate action.” However, Severino declined to detail the exact timeline or nature of that penalty — suggesting only that the appropriated funds California receives from HHS may be in jeopardy.
It is unclear why the administration is taking action now over a mandate that has been in place for years and why it has chosen to target only California, which is just one of a handful of states that require abortion coverage in private health insurance plans. Severino declined to comment on “any specific potential or active investigation.”
Still, Trump has made no secret of his frustrations with California, which has repeatedly butted heads with his administration — not only on matters of abortion and health care, but also on issues pertaining to the environment, the U.S. Census and immigration, among other policy areas.
The state has become something of a familiar antagonist for the president. He has repeatedly lambasted its prominent politicians — with tweets targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Gavin Newsom, among others — and repeatedly threatened to cut off its federal relief funds for fighting wildfires.
Newsom pushed back against the threat in a statement Friday,
“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 said, referring to the Obama administration’s decision to reject a similar challenge to the state’s mandate.
“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.”
And in a tweeted statement Friday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that Trump and Vice President Pence “are once again attacking women’s health in order to grandstand at today’s anti-choice rally. Make no mistake, this action against CA is just one more attempt to chip away at women’s rights & access to abortion.”
For the Trump administration, the move also marks its latest high-profile foray into the contentious abortion debate, a central issue in the 2020 presidential election.
Last year, HHS issued a regulation making it easier for doctors and other health care workers to refuse services for religious reasons — only to see that rule scrapped months later in federal court and picked up for consideration by the Supreme Court. And the Office of Civil Rights, the division pressing California on Friday, accused a Vermont hospital of violating federal law by forcing a nurse to participate in an abortion over her objections.
Trump’s appearance at the March for Life marks the first time a sitting president has appeared in person at the event since it was organized decades ago to protest the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.