Senate approves Biden's FDA pick despite opposition from Democrats, pro-life groups

FDA Building 21 stands behind the sign at the campus’s main entrance and houses the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. The FDA campus is located in Silver Spring, Maryland.
FDA Building 21 stands behind the sign at the campus’s main entrance and houses the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. The FDA campus is located in Silver Spring, Maryland. | Official FDA photo

The U.S. Senate confirmed Robert Califf as the head of the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday, drawing criticism from pro-life organizations that feel the appointment could “pave the way” for the expanded availability of chemical abortions. 

Califf was confirmed to the post he held during the Obama administration in a 50-46 vote. While most Republicans opposed Califf’s confirmation, a handful of Democrats voted against him as well, citing concerns about his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and his past handling of the opioid crisis.

The Democratic senators who voted against him include Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; and Ed Markey, D-Mass.

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On the other hand, six Republicans joined the remaining Democrats in supporting his confirmation: Sens. Roy Blunt; R-Mo., Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Mitt Romney, R-Utah; and Pat Toomey, R-Penn. The support for Califf this time around decreased dramatically from the 89-4 confirmation vote he enjoyed when he was previously appointed to the post in 2016.

The national pro-life grassroots advocacy organization Susan B. Anthony List lamented Califf’s confirmation as a victory for those seeking to increase the prevalence of chemical abortions.

“We’re deeply disappointed in the result of today’s vote,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement

“Robert Califf’s confirmation to lead the FDA paves the way for permanent authorization of mail-order abortion drugs, at a dire cost to women’s health and safety and the lives of countless unborn children,” she added. “We urge our allies in the states and Congress to take swift action to stop the flow of these dangerous drugs to post offices and pharmacies across America.”

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, a pro-life organization with chapters at school campuses nationwide, called Califf a "radical pick."

"The FDA used to be a respected institution that relied on science. Today, the FDA is so politically motivated they'll put women in harm's way just to appease the abortion lobby," Hawkins said in a statement. "The interests of Big Abortion Pharma won big as a man who worked for reduced health and safety standards for Chemical Abortion Pills is allowed to perpetuate whatever counts as ‘oversight’ at the FDA."

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, SBA List promised to “score against votes” related to Califf’s confirmation, meaning that it would characterize any approval of his appointment to the FDA as a pro-abortion vote. A vote in favor of Califf would result in a senator receiving a lower grade on the National Pro-Life Scorecard, which gives members of Congress grades ranging from A+ to F, illustrating how frequently they vote with the pro-life position. 

Two Senate Republicans who told Politico in December that they planned on supporting Califf, Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, ultimately voted against him.

Both senators told Politico the following month that they could not support him because of “pro-life issues” and the magazine suggested that pressure from pro-life groups may have played a role in convincing them to change their positions. 

Dannenfelser, along with representatives of 50 other pro-life organizations, previously wrote a letter outlining their concerns about the impact Califf’s appointment would have on the pro-life movement.

“Under Califf’s leadership during the Obama Administration, the FDA significantly undermined the reporting and safety requirements on medication abortion, also known as chemical abortion,” they wrote. 

“As the abortion industry continues to push for abortion on demand, the FDA needs a leader who will follow the science and prioritize the health and well-being of women and girls. Based on his past (successful) effort to weaken data and safety requirements for chemical abortion, we must oppose his nomination.”

The pro-life leaders took specific issue with Califf’s decision in his previous tenure as FDA head to weaken the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS), safety protocols designed to protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions.

“Until 2016, the REMS for chemical abortion required the reporting of severe, life-threatening, and fatal adverse events,” the letter stated. “Under the direction of Califf, this requirement was altered to require that only fatal adverse events be reported.”

Actions taken by the FDA over the past year relating to chemical abortions have caused pro-life groups further concern.

Late last year, after Califf’s confirmation hearing, the FDA announced the permanent lifting of the in-person dispensing requirement for abortion pills, thereby enabling women to obtain chemical abortions without seeing a doctor first. The FDA previously suspended the in-person dispensing requirement, citing health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Another pro-life group, Live Action, released a report in the summer of 2020 detailing the complications of chemical abortions. 

In a chemical abortion, women are given two drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol. Mifepristone blocks the effects of the natural pregnancy hormone progesterone, while Misoprostol induces contractions and a miscarriage.

The report cited “severe cramping, contractions, and heavy bleeding” as side effects of chemical abortions.

Among the Democratic senators to vote against Califf, Manchin co-authored a USA Today op-ed with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., encouraging Biden to withdraw the nomination. They blamed the FDA for enabling the opioid crisis, adding that Califf's previous tenure at FDA played a role. 

"During Dr. Califf’s previous tenure as FDA commissioner, drug-related overdoses went up, a clear indicator the FDA hadn’t made any necessary, meaningful changes to address the crisis facing our country," the senators wrote. "In 2016, then-Commissioner Califf announced the FDA’s plan to overhaul its opioid policies."

"But between 2016 and 2017, the FDA approved five new opioids and only removed a single opioid from the market. Dr. Califf also commissioned a report on opioids, but the report failed to review the flawed enriched enrollment randomized withdrawal (EERW) methodology used to approve new opioids," the senators continued. 

Manchin issued a statement in December calling for a "culture change" at the FDA.

“It is abundantly clear the FDA has failed to keep Americans safe," Manchin said. "I can’t fathom why we would confirm someone whose actions failed to swiftly curb the tide of the opioid epidemic and protect the public’s health, especially someone who has already helmed FDA as its Commissioner."

"More than 500,000 Americans have died since the FDA first approved Oxycontin in 1995," he said. "During Dr. Califf’s previous tenure as FDA Commissioner, drug related overdoses went up. Five years later, they are up again, this time at a record number: there were more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year. Furthermore, Dr. Califf has indicated he plans to keep Dr. Janet Woodcock, who has led the FDA and directly overseen the approval of numerous highly addictive drugs to market, as part of FDA leadership."

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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