A lack of access to legal abortion services could directly lead to American deaths, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argued Wednesday.
“Women who are interested in accessing care, termination of their pregnancies, may not have resources to cross state lines,” Rochelle Walensky said. “Those who don’t may take matters in their own hands, and may not get exactly the care they need … I do think lives could be at stake in that situation.”
Walensky’s comments came following Politico’s publication of a leaked Supreme Court draft majority opinion indicating the nation’s top judges had tentatively voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that enshrined the legal right to abortion nationwide.
The implication of such a ban could ripple across the worlds of health care and medical training, Walensky said. For now, though, she characterized the Biden administration’s immediate response as being in “legal hands,” and said the CDC would continue to advocate for widespread access to abortion services.
Walensky’s remarks came during an interview with STAT Executive Editor Rick Berke at the Milken Institute’s annual global conference in Los Angeles. Much of the panel focused on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular, the future of Walensky’s agency.
Last month, Walensky called for a one-month review of the CDC’s practices, strengths, and weaknesses throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and more broadly. While she acknowledged the agency’s imperfections, she also downplayed concerns about muddled messaging between federal officials — even as she sidestepped a question about which federal official is ultimately in charge of the federal government’s Covid communications.
“The CDC has historically been criticized, prior to my even being here, for being slow and for being siloed,” she said. “One of the things the pandemic has taught us is the power of cross-agency collaboration and the need, in certain situations, to work quickly. I’ve frequently said: If we don’t make a decision, we’ve made a decision not to act.”
Seemingly crossed wires between different government officials and agencies, however, have plagued the CDC during both the Trump and Biden administrations. Just last week, infectious disease researcher Anthony Fauci said the U.S. was “out of the pandemic phase” — then later walked back his remarks.
“We don’t vet each other’s ‘what are you going to say on this next TV hit,’” Walensky said. “I’ll let Dr. Fauci speak for Dr. Fauci.”
Walensky also expressed openness to changing the way CDC directors are selected, floating a shift to six-year terms to decouple the agency’s fate from the four-year presidential cycle. She warned, however, that making the position subject to U.S. Senate approval could needlessly politicize and delay any new director’s installation.
“I do think that if this had been [a Senate-confirmed position] in January 2021, I don’t know that they would have a director yet,” Walensky said.
Walensky, speaking at a crowded conference where most attendees are foregoing masks even in indoor spaces, also defended most Americans’ right to make their own risk calculations about whether to wear face coverings or attend indoor gatherings.
Her position came amid heavy criticism of this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which President Biden and White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha appeared maskless, and which has already led to a handful of new coronavirus cases.
Walensky and Fauci had also attended the Gridiron Dinner weeks before, an event that resulted in dozens of new Covid-19 infections.
“We are not where we were last summer or last spring. We have vaccination, we have boosting, we have many tests, we have many therapeutics available,” she said.
“Throughout the country, we have about 95% of people with some form of protection,” she added, referring to estimates of Americans who’ve either been vaccinated or who’ve recovered from Covid.