Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir—who has come under scrutiny for his record on reproductive rights—will take over the duties of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner while the Trump administration’s nominee for that post awaits approval.
The move was announced last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a press release about the agency’s current acting commissioner, Dr. Ned Sharpless, resuming his role as director of the National Cancer Institute. It came as the administration announced it intended to nominate Stephen M. Hahn to be the FDA’s new commissioner.
“Admiral Giroir has been an indispensable leader for HHS on a number of public health priorities,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “As Assistant Secretary for Health, whose authorities include overseeing the U.S. Public Health Service, he will be able to assume the delegable duties of the Commissioner at this time and ensure the FDA’s work continues to move forward.”
Under the Trump administration, the FDA has elevated anti-choice policy, cracking down on self-managed abortion care website AidAccess and fetal tissue research. Now, reproductive health and rights advocates worry that Giroir’s new duties at the FDA could have a detrimental effect on related policy given his record.
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“At HHS, Giroir has worked to take away access to birth control and abortion, and we can only assume he will also attack reproductive health care at the FDA,” Jacqueline Ayers, vice president of government relations and public policy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “As Assistant Secretary for Health, Giroir oversaw the Trump administration’s current attempts to dismantle Title X, the nation’s program for affordable birth control and reproductive health care, which has put care for millions of people at risk.”
“We are incredibly concerned about Brett Giroir’s temporary role at the FDA, an agency that relies on science and evidence to regulate the safety and efficacy requirements for lifesaving medications,” Ayers said. “Giroir has made it clear that he is willing to push the administration’s harmful ideology onto other people, and will likely do so in this new role.”
Giroir has served as assistant secretary for health for HHS since February 2018. In the role, he has oversight of departments affecting reproductive health, including the Office of Population Affairs, which administers Title X federal family planning grants and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program—both of which have been the target of attacks from the Trump administration.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) also expressed concern about Giroir’s new temporary role. “I’m alarmed that Dr. Giroir will step in as Acting Commissioner given his track record of letting ideology drive decisions at the expense of women and families—so I will hold him accountable while he serves in this role,” she said in a statement.
During Giroir’s 2017 confirmation hearings, Murray confronted the physician about whether he believed Title X federal family funds should be made available to all reproductive health-care providers. “If there are restrictions that are passed down to me, I am obliged to follow the laws,” Giroir said, according to transcripts of the hearing, adding that the services the program provided are “critically important.”
Murray told Kaiser Health News at the time that she was “unconvinced Dr. Giroir would be willing to stand up to this administration’s ideological attacks on women in a key leadership role at HHS.”
Since Giroir’s confirmation as assistant secretary for health, the Trump administration has continued its attacks on Title X. HHS finalized its restrictions on the program—dubbed the domestic “gag rule” by reproductive health and rights advocates—in February after first proposing it in May 2018. The rule, which bars Title X funds from going to health-care providers who perform or refer patients for abortion services, led many reproductive health providers to leave the program. That included Planned Parenthood, which served approximately 40 percent of the nation’s 4 million Title X patients.
Giroir has also played a leading role in the administration’s efforts to restrict fetal tissue research, according to a September 2018 report from Politico—a goal supported by anti-choice activists. Steven Valentine, who served as Giroir’s chief of staff and has since assumed the role of deputy assistant secretary for health, has a background in anti-choice activism. He previously worked as interim legislative director of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List.
When asked to respond to claims that Dr. Giroir could endanger reproductive health and rights in his role at the FDA, a spokesperson for HHS told Rewire.News that “This is blatantly false.” The spokesperson pointed to the agency’s press release on the announcement and Azar’s statement on Giroir.
Cynthia A. Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN)—an organization that addresses women’s health and monitors the FDA—said the organization was “gravely concerned that the Trump Administration has named Brett Giroir as the interim FDA commissioner.”
“As an FDA watchdog, the NWHN believes that the FDA should always make decisions grounded in science,” Pearson said in a statement. “We do not want to see the FDA entangled in the politics around reproductive health and women’s health. And make no mistake, under Giroir’s leadership women’s reproductive health is at stake.”