Biden directs federal agencies to protect abortion access

By on 12/07/2022 | Updated on 04/07/2023
President Joe Biden sits at a desk at the White House flanked with American flags.
Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls via Flickr

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order directing government agencies to use “every tool available to protect access to reproductive health care”.  

The move comes after the US Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade ending a constitutional right to abortion, which led some states to enact ‘trigger laws’ banning or severely restricting the procedure.

Under the order, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) and the White House Gender Policy Council will set up an interagency task force on reproductive health care access to coordinate the administration’s efforts. The HHS will oversee efforts to protect and expand access to abortion medication, ensure patients receive emergency care related to pregnancy and pregnancy loss, and boost access to contraception and family planning services.   

The department will also launch an education programme to “ensure Americans have access to reliable and accurate information about their rights and access to care”, and the justice department will convene lawyers, working on a pro bono basis, to represent patients and family planning providers “lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country”. Representation would include protecting women’s right to travel out of state to access abortion services.

The order also seeks to protect patients’ privacy “including by addressing the transfer and sales of sensitive health-related data, combatting digital surveillance related to reproductive health care services, and protecting people seeking reproductive health care from inaccurate information, fraudulent schemes, or deceptive practices”.

Read more: US government makes ‘commitment to reproductive healthcare’ in sick leave rules

The factsheet setting out the executive order’s actions said the Supreme Court’s decision “expressly took away a right from the American people that it had recognised for nearly 50 years – a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health care decisions, free from government interference.  

“Fundamental rights – to privacy, autonomy, freedom, and equality – have been denied to millions of women across the country, with grave implications for their health, lives, and wellbeing. This ruling will disproportionately affect women of colour, low-income women, and rural women,” it said.    

Biden’s limited powers

Biden has acknowledged the limitations facing his office. “The fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law,” he said. However, he stressed that the Democrats do not at present have the votes in the US Senate to do so.

Until such a law is passed, the president “has committed to doing everything in his power to defend reproductive rights and protect access to safe and legal abortion,” the White House said.

The executive order is one of several steps the federal government has taken to protect access to abortion. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published a factsheet on 4 July asserting that federal government employees can use paid sick leave if they need to travel across state lines to receive medical care, or to accompany a family member who is, in what the White House called “a commitment to reproductive healthcare”.

The defence department has also issued a memorandum confirming it will continue to provide ‘covered’ abortions to military personnel, defence civilians and eligible family members, meaning when such care is required to protect the patient, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. 

Some advocates have asked the Biden administration to go further in leveraging federal resources, such as by providing abortion services on federal lands and within the Veterans Affairs Department’s (VA) health care system. The Biden administration has said it is not actively considering those steps, though White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not rule out a change in policy at VA. 

It is understood that Biden is considering declaring abortion access a public health emergency. This measure allocates HHS additional funding to respond to a crisis, though it is usually reserved for an outbreak of infectious disease, a bio-terrorist attack and other such incidents. Declaring an emergency could shield patients and providers from liability, for example for providing abortion medication in ‘hostile states’, according to the Washington Post. However, the White House has said such an intervention doesn’t seem like “a great option”.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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