Biden Signs Executive Order on Abortion Access and Legal Backing

Two weeks after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Biden’s executive order is the most official move in the direction of a clearly defined federal abortion strategy. 

President Joe Biden listens to New York Governor Kathy Hochul during a call with governors on protecting access to reproductive healthcare at the White House on July 1, 2022. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

This story was originally published on The 19th.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday designed to expand access to medication abortion and education about legally available abortion options, as well as provide legal backing for people seeking or providing abortions. 

The executive order directs the White House counsel and the U.S. attorney general to coordinate volunteer lawyers who will defend patients and medical providers facing state-based charges for “lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country.” Those lawyers could, the White House suggested, defend people who are prosecuted for traveling from a state that has banned abortion to one where it remains legal.

It’s not clear how the White House intends to shore up access to medication abortion, a two-pill regimen that is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can safely terminate a pregnancy within the first trimester. The president’s executive order directs his Department of Health and Human Services to, within the next 30 days, “take additional action to protect and expand access to abortion care, including access to medication.”

These ideas are not entirely new. Biden has suggested in previous remarks that his administration would prioritize medication abortion access and ensure that people are not criminalized for seeking abortions in another state. But this order is the most official move in the direction of a clearly defined federal strategy. 

Friday marks two weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 49-year-old case that guaranteed the right to an abortion. That day, Attorney General Merrick Garland said states could not ban access to medication abortion based on disagreements with the FDA, a sentiment reiterated by the president

But since then, the administration has not specified what that looks like in practice. The White House has still not clarified whether the government will sue states that have restricted access to medication abortion, or how it might otherwise expand access to those pills.

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, seven states have begun enforcing total abortion bans, and three more have restricted access to the procedure for people beyond six weeks of pregnancy. Confusion over what laws are in effect has resulted in clinics scaling back services even when total abortions bans haven’t yet taken effect.

Beyond legal aid and medication abortion, Biden’s executive order directs the government to protect abortion providers and clinics against threats of violence and establish a Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access to coordinate the federal response to abortion bans. The task force includes the attorney general, who will also be tasked with supporting states in protecting patients and medical providers who are seeking or offering abortions that are legal in their states. 

Biden is also tasking HHS with coordinating outreach efforts to make sure people know the circumstances under which abortion remains legal. And his order will instruct the department to clarify that, under existing federal law, emergency rooms cannot turn away patients or deny them care if they are in a medical crisis. That provision could address concerns about abortion bans resulting in medical care being denied to people who are miscarrying or experiencing ectopic pregnanices.

Per the White House, Biden’s executive order also instructs HHS to consider issuing new guidance under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—which includes medical privacy safeguards—to clarify that medical staff need not and often cannot disclose patient’s health information to outsiders, including law enforcement. That provision could be leveraged to address concerns about states arresting or attempting to prosecute patients who miscarry or who induce their own abortions. (Medication abortions resemble miscarriages.) 

And he is directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to address online privacy concerns, by “protect[ing] consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of reproductive health care services.” The executive order also tells HHS, the FTC and the attorney general to “address deceptive or fraudulent practices, including online, and protect access to accurate information.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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