US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that his administration says will help secure access to abortion and reproductive health services in the United States, two weeks after the country’s top court overturned the constitutional right to the procedure nationwide.
Biden has faced mounting pressure, including from within his own Democratic Party, to take action to defend abortion rights following the overturning of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision on June 24.
The executive action on Friday directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect and expand access to abortion services, including by defending out-of-state travel and federally approved medication, according to a White House fact sheet.
It also directs agencies to work to educate medical providers and insurers about how and when they are required to share privileged patient information with authorities — an effort to protect women who seek or use abortion services.
He also directed HHS to ensure women have access to emergency medical care, family planning services, and contraception, including intrauterine devices (IUDs).
“I’m asking the Justice Department that, much like they did in the civil rights era, to do … everything in their power to protect these women seeking to invoke their rights,” Biden told reporters during a news conference on Friday.
“In states where clinics are still open, to protect them from intimidation; to protect the right of women to travel from [a] state that prohibits [her from] seeking the medical attention that she needs to a state to provide that care.”
The White House said Biden also asked Federal Trade Commission to take steps to protect the privacy of those seeking information about reproductive care online and establish an interagency task force to coordinate federal efforts to safeguard access to abortion.
It said it will also convene volunteer lawyers to provide women and providers with pro bono legal assistance to help them navigate new state restrictions after the Supreme Court ruling.
“Now the most extreme Republican governors and state legislatures have taken the court’s decision as a greenlight to impose some of the harshest and most restrictive laws seen in this country in a long time,” Biden said on Friday.
While Christian nationalists, right-wing politicians and anti-abortion rights groups celebrated the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade last month, many communities across the country have been overcome by uncertainty and fear.
Twenty-six US states are likely or certain to ban abortion after the fall of Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group, and advocates say that Black and low-income people will be disproportionately affected by those bans.
Since the decision, Biden has stressed that his ability to protect abortion rights by executive action is limited without congressional action.
Last week, he said he supported calls to waive the filibuster – a contentious legislative tool that allows a single US senator to block the passage of a bill by keeping debate open indefinitely – to pass legislation to codify Roe into federal law.
On Friday, Biden reiterated his call for Americans to turn out in large numbers in November primaries to elect legislators who will vote in favour of that. “The only way to fulfil and restore that right for women in this country is by voting,” he said.
Observers welcomed Biden’s executive action on Friday, but said much more is needed.
“There’s the commitment (again) to protect travel, new commitments to protect abortion providers in border states, federal leave, privacy so you won’t be prosecuted (hopefully) when you go back home. The admin is trying to make it easy as possible to flee,” Elie Mystal, a US lawyer, writer and political commentator, wrote on Twitter.
“My worry, as always, is that travel rights don’t really help vulnerable pregnant people with little income.”
Today, @POTUS heeded my call to take executive action to safeguard access to reproductive care and protect women’s data privacy. While these steps are important, more needs to be done to protect reproductive freedom, and I’ll keep fighting for women and their families. https://t.co/ettgwcAOUJ
— Senator Cortez Masto (@SenCortezMasto) July 8, 2022