A New Era for Women: The Biden Administration’s Vision on Health Care and Reproductive Rights

This article is part of a longer feature piece in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms.—”A New Era for Women”—breaking down President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s promise to “build back better” on women’s rights to health care, economic security and physical safety. Check back every Wednesday for new installations of this series, or get caught up here. And become a member today to read the entire issue—through our app and in print.

This article was updated on February 6 at 4:14 a.m. PST.

“We [had] a president who centered his work on denial, division and denigration: denial of the pandemic, of climate change and of racism; division between red and blue, white and Black, us versus them politics; and denigration of women, immigrants and the LGBTQ community,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D- Mass.), the newly elected assistant speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, told Ms. “But 80 million people voted for change, to restore integrity and truth and science and equality.”

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have their work cut out for them, to say the least. The new administration has pledged in The Biden Agenda for Women to pursue an “aggressive and comprehensive plan to further women’s economic and physical security and ensure that women can fully exercise their civil rights.” It’s part of the Biden blueprint to “build back better,” and after four years of the Trump administration’s destructive roll-backs of women’s rights, it’s about time.

“We cannot squander a moment because the damage is so great,” said Catherine Lhamon, former assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department in the Obama administration and current chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “We need to have a forward-looking plan for how we use every moment of the next four years of the Biden administration to ensure that the safety net that we long have believed in is actually present for people in this country.”

The Biden-Harris administration has already established its ambitious agenda for advancing women’s rights in areas such as health care, reproductive rights, economic security, family life, education and gender-based violence. With this plan in mind, Ms. spoke to leading policymakers, advocates and activists to learn what women can expect—and hope for—in 2021 and beyond.

Health Care and Reproductive Rights

It’s now widely acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, people of color and lower-income people—who are more likely to experience life-threatening illness because of racial disparities or dangerous work conditions as essential workers, or who may need to care for sick family members or supervise children learning remotely.

“The pandemic has put all the inequities that we knew were there into stark relief,” Clark noted.

Understanding these disparities, Biden and Harris have pledged to take—and are already taking—the public health and economic steps necessary to get the virus under control, to deliver immediate relief to working families and to reopen schools and businesses safely.

Most critically, Biden and Harris will fight ongoing Republican attempts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and will battle to expand access to affordable, high-quality health care with a public insurance option for all. And they will reverse former President Donald Trump’s devastating restrictions on access to reproductive health care.

A New Era for Women: The Biden Administration's Vision on Health Care and Reproductive Rights
Last week, President Biden issued an executive order rescinding the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule. (Twitter / @POTUS)

“The most immediate step should be to publicly express the new administration’s commitment to protect and expand access to comprehensive reproductive health care and uphold reproductive rights, including abortion care in the U.S. and around the world,” said Katherine Gillespie, the senior federal policy counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

With a stroke of a pen, Biden revoked the global gag rule, which blocked U.S. humanitarian assistance to health organizations providing abortion information or referrals to patients. The Biden-Harris administration has also pledged to reverse Trump policies that gutted the ACA’s birth control coverage mandate and his domestic gag rule, which for the first time blocked U.S.-based reproductive health clinics from receiving federal Title X funding if they make referrals to patients for abortion health care. As a result of this policy, Planned Parenthood lost $60 million from its annual budget and the Title X network’s capacity was slashed in half, according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

Gillespie said advocates also hope that Biden will direct the Food and Drug Administration to review and remove unnecessary restrictions on the abortion pill.

To guard against the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which threatens to obliterate the constitutional right to abortion, Biden and Harris support legislative efforts to protect abortion rights. The Women’s Health Protection Act would codify abortion rights and ban medically unnecessary restrictions. The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act would repeal the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid coverage for abortion, and prohibit federal, state and local legislators from interfering with decisions by private health insurance companies to offer coverage for abortion care.

To address the high maternal mortality rate in the U.S.—where Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than non-Hispanic white women—Biden and Harris support the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act. If passed, it would provide grants for maternal mortality review committees, innovative maternity care models and other programs to save women’s lives.

The new administration has pledged to prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from detaining pregnant or postpartum women, and to incentivize states to expand Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage for immigrants. Advocates hope it will also require protection of detainees against reproductive coercion. 

“The Trump administration over the last four years has amounted to an all-out war on immigrants, people of color and women,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. She said she believes that “Biden and Harris share a pro-immigrant vision of America” but that “there is a lot of work to undo the harm of the Trump administration.”

A New Era for Women: The Biden Administration's Vision on Health Care and Reproductive Rights
A pro-choice demonstration during oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whereas the Trump administration withdrew U.S. funding for international organizations supporting sexual and reproductive health rights globally, the Biden-Harris administration has rejoined and reendowed the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund, the U.N.’s sexual and reproductive health agency. Biden and Harris support the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (Global HER) Act to permanently repeal the global gag rule and the Helms Amendment, ending the ban on U.S. funding for safe abortion internationally.

Furthermore, the new administration will resume monitoring global human rights abuses that disproportionately impact women and girls, including maternal mortality and unmet contraceptive needs. Advocates also hope that Biden will exit the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration, a global pact the Trump administration cosponsored and signed that disavows the international human right to abortion, and rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Committee in promoting safe, legal and affordable access to sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.