Biden Administration Announces New Steps to Protect Abortion and Reproductive Health Access

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a meeting of the Reproductive Health Task Force on Jan. 22, 2024. Biden met with the task force to discuss reproductive health and to mark the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

In the midst of Republican elected officials “sowing chaos” in a “quest to ban abortion nationwide,” the Biden administration announced this week it is taking steps to help improve Americans’ reproductive healthcare access—including expanding coverage for no-cost contraception, increasing patient and provider awareness of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), safeguarding medication abortion access, and prosecuting violence against clinics and healthcare providers.

On Monday, the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Biden administration held a White House briefing to outline the new measures. The same day, agencies from across the administration convened a meeting of the Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access (created in 2022) to hear from physicians directly affected by the Dobbs decision, receive recommendations on implementing past executive orders, and coordinate on next steps. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Wisconsin to launch a nationwide tour focused on reproductive freedom.

Administration officials admit that the path forward to improve abortion access across the U.S. lies largely with Congress. “We, and the president himself, have been laser-focused on passing federal legislation as the only way to restore the protections that were lost under Roe,” said Jen Klein, assistant to the president and director of the Gender Policy Council, at the briefing—referring to the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which would establish the legal right to abortion in all 50 states. “President Biden and Vice President Harris will continue to call on Congress to pass a law restoring the protections of Roe versus Wade, the only way to ensure that women in every state have access to abortion.”

But in the meantime, the administration laid out its plan and a commitment “to continue fighting back against extreme attacks throughout America.”

Keeping Contraception Affordable and Available 

In the memo, the Biden administration stressed the importance of reducing barriers to contraception—”an essential component of reproductive health care that has only become more important in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.” 

For Americans protected under the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

Relying on progress already established under the ACA, the Departments of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) issued new guidance clarifying standards and expanding the coverage of FDA-approved contraceptives at no cost. 

For the 8 million federal civilian employees, retirees and their families covered by The Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program

The Office of Performance and Personnel Management plans to issuing guidance to insurers reminding them of their obligation to cover contraception and “will also newly require insurers that participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program to take additional steps to educate enrollees about their contraception benefits,” the memo outlined.

For Americans under private or state insurance

The secretary of HHS issued a letter to health insurers—private, state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs and Medicare—reminding them of their obligations to cover contraception. 

Ensuring the Right to Emergency Abortion Care

“The administration has long taken the position that the required emergency care can, in some circumstances, include abortion care,” according to the White House statement from Monday. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) will be defending before the Supreme Court the interpretation that emergency care can include abortion care, with a ruling expected sometime in June. While the administration awaits a decision from the Court on whether or not EMTALA—which states that any hospital receiving Medicare funds must provide emergency medical care to any person—prevents hospitals from providing care in emergency circumstances, it announced a comprehensive plan to educate patients on their rights to said emergency medical care, which they say has the potential to include abortions.

“HHS will also disseminate training materials for healthcare providers and establish a dedicated team of experts who will increase the department’s capacity to support hospitals and providers across the country in complying with federal requirements,” according to the memo.

The Biden administration also stressed the importance of maintaining the right to travel across state lines to obtain emergency abortion care. Upon Roe’s overturn, Biden reaffirmed a statement by the attorney general that stressed pregnant people’s right to travel to obtain reproductive healthcare. 

This past November, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in two lawsuits that challenged the Alabama attorney general’s claim that infringes on the constitutional right to travel by threatening to prosecute those assisting women seeking out-of-state abortions. As the DOJ continues to monitor states attempting to restrict those traveling for reproductive health care, HHS issued a letter to U.S. governors that invites them to apply for Section 1115 waivers that would expand access under Medicaid for people traveling across state lines to access abortion care. 

Protecting Access to Medication Abortion

Nedication abortion is an essential part of reproductive healthcare access: Over half of all abortions occur with abortion pills, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute. Even with the assurance of Biden’s ability to veto a national abortion ban, the administration stressed the importance of medication abortion remaining accessible.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and DOJ are currently working to defend access to the abortion pill, mifepristone, in front of the Supreme Court. The case will be heard this term, with a decision likely by summer.

At Monday’s briefing, HHS and the DOJ also reported on their implementation of Biden’s Presidential Memorandum from last January (another anniversary of Roe’s passing), where the president stressed his backing of the nearly 24-year-old FDA approval by issuing a Presidential Memorandum that directed HHS, the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to further protect abortion medication.

Ensuring Safety of Abortion Clinics and Providers

Signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act protects the right to access and provide abortion care and other reproductive health services. The four years of the Trump administration saw a dramatic increase in clinic harassment and violence. Despite this, Trump didn’t prosecute a single criminal FACE case to conclusion.

Monday’s memo emphasized that the DOJ continues to prosecute anti-abortion activists who violate of the FACE Act.

Looking Ahead to the Presidential Elections

Abortion is expected to be a major issue in the November presidential election: Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of all voters support a person’s right to make their own reproductive decisions without government interference, including about abortion, contraception and continuing a pregnancy, according to a national poll by Lake Research Partners for Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), publisher of Ms.  The poll also found that banning abortion motivates voters to turn out in the 2024 elections, with 72 percent of voters who support abortion rights motivated, compared to 48 percent of voters who do not support abortion rights.

“I said … on that day that Roe was overturned, the health and lives of women in this nation would now be at risk,” said Biden on Monday. “And that has unfortunately proven to be true.”

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Livia Follet is an editorial intern for Ms. and a recent graduate from The University of Colorado Boulder where she earned bachelor's degrees in English literature and women and gender studies. Raised in rural Colorado, her interests include environmental justice movements, Indigenous feminisms and reproductive justice.