Biden faces pressure to end abortion ban within the Department of Veterans Affairs

CORRECTION: Patrick Murray is the director for the national legislative department at Veterans of Foreign Wars, not a legal director as we stated in the segment. We regret the error.  

In a post-Roe America, Democrats are increasingly turning to the White House for solutions and urging President Biden to use executive action to protect and expand abortion access. While Biden's power is limited, a group of veterans argues he could expand access to care with the Department of Veterans Affairs, an idea with potentially big impact. Laura Barrón-López joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the aftermath of overturning Roe vs. Wade, many Democrats are urging President Biden to use executive action to protect and expand abortion access.

    While the White House's power in this arena is limited, a group of military veterans argue that the administration could expand access to care through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. It's an idea with potentially big impact. The VA is the largest integrated health care system in the country. It has nearly 1,300 facilities, and it serves as the primary provider for more than 600,000 female veterans.

    White House correspondent Laura Barrón-López has been reporting on this idea. And she joins me now.

    So, hello, Laura.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Hi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been doing a lot of reporting on this.

    Tell us, what is it that these veterans and Democrats are asking the president to do?

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    So, these Democrats and veterans are asking President Biden to issue an executive action that directs the Veterans Affairs to provide abortion services and abortion counseling. Those are things that the VA currently does not do at all.

    And they believe that they have the authority to do that via executive action and via rulemaking.

    Now, today, I talked to Amy McGrath. She's a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a 2018 Democratic Senate candidate, and she's pushing the White House on this. And here's what she had to say about the obligation she thinks the government owes to these veterans.

    Lt. Col. Amy McGrath (Ret.), American SOS Project: If the VA doesn't step up and provide these health care services in these states where abortion health care services are now banned, then the federal government and VA is not then taking care of those of us who are women veterans who, frankly, fought for our country, fought for our rights in our Constitution, and now have just had a basic right taken away.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Now, like McGrath, I also spoke to Congresswoman Julia Brownley, and she's on the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House.

    And she told me that she is also pushing the White House and the administration this, and that since the Roe decision came down, that she has been speaking repeatedly to VA Secretary Denis McDonough and has been asking him to move forward on this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Laura, what have you learned about what the administration thinks about this?

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    So, VA Secretary Denis McDonough has actually talked about this with Congress as recently as April, so before the decision came down.

    And he said that: "Our statute would allow us to provide abortion services. We do not provide abortion services pursuant to rulemaking. It's not that I feel it. It's that the law does permit."

    And so, today, I asked White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre what she had to say about the VA secretary's comments, as well as whether or not the White House was going to pursue executive action. And here's what she said.

  • Karine Jean-Pierre, White House Press Secretary:

    The administration and the VA are committed to providing health care to veterans, and the VA continues to offer reproductive health care services to their veterans as well.

    As you note, current regulation doesn't allow for the VA to provide abortions. We're going to continue to review. We're going to continue to explore every possible option to protect women's rights and access to reproductive health.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And so, as you hear there, the White House is being very cautious right now.

    Essentially, part of that is because of the fact that they're concerned about potential legal challenges, not just with a proposal like this, but with any other executive action proposal that President Biden could pursue. And, also, what we know about President Biden is that, as someone who was a part of, a member of the Senate for so long, so many years, that he prefers Congress to take action first before he goes the route of executive actions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you say, we know there are — many of these executive actions people are proposing to the White House could face legal challenges.

    What do we know about the legal challenges this could face?

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Right.

    So the short answer is that it is probably going to happen, simply because almost everything that the president does will be challenged, given the nature of the Supreme Court decision and the creativity that the White House may be pursuing.

    But — so I want to dive a little deeper. The Republicans have argued that a 1992 law that was passed regarding veterans' health care prohibits the Veterans Affairs Department from providing abortions.

    Now, I spoke to a number of legal experts from lawyers today. And they said, though, that they think that Veterans Affairs could have a strong case, because that 1992 law is so narrow in its language, and what it specifically provides to the VA, that it does not apply to preexisting authority that the VA had or subsequent authority that was bestowed upon the VA.

    And so the lawyer told me that they think that the VA could very well potentially move forward with this and have a strong legal case.

    Now, we also spoke to Patrick Murray, who's a legal affairs — legal director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a veteran service organization. And he supports one element of what these Democrats and veterans are pushing. He says that his organization believes that they can — that the VA has the authority to provide abortion counseling, that they don't need to change any law to do that, that that is something that they can do via rulemaking.

    But, again, Judy, to your point, a lot of this is going to end up in the courts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, knowing that, knowing these challenges are coming, why are these advocates pushing so hard despite that?

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    So we're talking about executive actions here, right, because, to get to this point, it means that almost all other options have been exhausted, which is that the Supreme Court handed down a very big decision reversing Roe vs. Wade.

    There is no bipartisanship in Congress right now that would push forward a law that would codify Roe vs. Wade. And so, ultimately, what the president is left with is his executive authority. And that's what Democrats are arguing with him. And Julia Brownley also added, the congresswoman, that she thinks that it would help the president score some political points with his base, as well as independent women, independent voters.

    And she essentially said that the White House should not be worried about the legal challenges and should simply pursue these actions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's their view.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, all right, Laura Barron-Lopez, on top on the story, thank you very much.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Thank you.

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