July 8, 2022 – President Joe Biden today signed an executive order that aims to push back on efforts in several states to extend abortion restrictions after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade.
The executive order calls on federal agencies to expand access to reproductive care, crack down on misinformation, and protect the privacy of patients seeking reproductive care.
Out-of-State Abortion Care
Biden has asked the Justice Department to protect the right of women to travel to states where abortion is legal. According to the order, the attorney general will provide legal protection to women who travel out of state for abortions and the health care providers who offer abortions to those patients.
An interagency task force on reproductive health care access will be formed to improve reproductive services and increase women’s access to them. The task force will be headed by the Department of Health and Human Services and work with other agencies to carry out Biden’s plan. The department is being told to “ensure all patients, including pregnant women and girls, get emergency care they need under federal law,” Biden said.
After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, many had concerns that data from internet searches, social media, and period tracking apps could be used by law enforcement to prosecute women seeking abortions. Biden said that he is asking the Federal Trade Commission to “crack down” on data brokers selling health information.
“Right now, when you use a search engine or the app on your phone, companies collect your data,” he said. “They sell it to other companies, they even share it with law enforcement.”
The order looks to strengthen the protection of health care information and protect patient-provider confidentiality. The secretary of Health and Human Services will also issue new guidelines for medical providers and consumers about how to protect reproductive health care data.
The executive order includes protections regarding access to contraceptives. Biden pointed out that Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in the case overturning Roe, wrote that “the court should reconsider the constitutional right to contraception – to use contraception – even among married couples.”
Biden cited the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision that overturned a state law that prevented married couples from using contraceptives, even in the privacy of their own home. He also said the Affordable Care Act guarantees insurance coverage for women’s health services, including free birth control, in all 50 states.
The order directs Health and Human Services to find ways to expand access to reproductive health services like IUDs, birth control pills, and emergency contraception.
Doctors Fearing Criminal Charges
Biden said many health care providers fear criminal prosecution in the post-Roe era if a woman miscarries while in their care. He described, for example, a scenario where a woman comes into the emergency room in any state in the U.S. while having a life-threatening miscarriage. He pointed out that some doctors might be so concerned about criminal charges for treating her that they delay treatment while they call the hospital lawyer.
“I don’t care what you position is, it’s outrageous and it’s dangerous,” he said.
Some of the state laws on abortion “are so extreme,” Biden said, that “they’ve raised the threat of criminal penalties for doctors and health care providers.”
Doctors need clear guidance on their own responsibilities and protections under federal law, no matter what state they practice in, Biden added.
“That’s why this executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure all patients – including pregnant women and girls experiencing pregnancy – get emergency care,” Biden said.
The department has already launched a website to help patients know their rights at ReproductiveRights.gov; reminded health insurers of their continued requirement to cover contraceptive services at no extra cost to consumers as part of the Affordable Care Act; and created guidance for the public and health care providers regarding privacy of medical information when a woman seeks reproductive health care.
In addition to the new task force, “I’m asking the Justice Department, much like they did in the civil rights years, to do something, through everything in their power, to protect these women seeking to invoke their rights in states where clinics are still open to protect them,” Biden said.
Groups that support abortion rights thanked Biden for the actions, but many said more remains to be done.
“We welcome President Biden’s vital step to protect access to safe and legal abortion through executive order,” Amnesty International said on Twitter. “Still, more must be done to ensure that women, girls, and people who can become pregnant have full access to healthcare.”
Last week, Nancy Northup, JD, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, urged Biden to declare a public health emergency over access to abortion. Northup, writing in an op-ed for The Washington Post, said such a declaration would “give the Department of Health and Human Services power to help patients get vital abortion care wherever they live. Under a declaration, HHS could enable out-of-state prescribing and dispensing of medications for abortion for those in states with abortion bans.”
After today’s executive order, Northup repeated her plea.
“Abortion services have already ceased in nine states, and that number is expected to grow dramatically,” she said in a statement. “This public health crisis will become more dire by the day.”
She continued: “We are glad that President Biden is taking action and has directed the Health and Human Services Department to do everything in its power to expand access to medication abortion.”
Meanwhile, the group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which opposes abortion rights, slammed Biden’s actions.
“Long gone is the Democratic Party of ‘safe, legal, and rare,’” the group said on Twitter. “President Biden has once again caved to the extreme abortion lobby, determined to put the full weight of the federal government behind promoting abortion.”