Two weeks after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark case Roe v Wade in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on July 8 to protect access to reproductive health care.
Democrats have pressured Biden in recent weeks to secure rights to such care, especially the right to safe and legal abortions. As the president mentioned in his speech when signing the executive order, 13 states have already enacted abortion bans, and 12 more will likely follow suit soon.
As president, Biden cannot pass legislation or guarantee the right to abortion on his own, and he said as much in his speech. “We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice house to codify Roe,” Biden noted, fervently urging Americans to vote in November’s elections to make such legislation possible.
In the meantime, the Biden administration has committed to doing everything in its power, starting with this executive order, to secure Americans’ reproductive rights and keep abortion legal wherever possible.
The order aims to achieve this goal through a number of means. First and foremost, Biden intends to expand access to medication abortions, as well as ensure access to contraception and family planning care.
The administration will also focus on ensuring that both those who may need to seek abortions and those medical professionals who can provide them know their rights around the procedure, reproductive health, and medical information generally.
Lack of knowledge about whether doctors or hospitals could be prosecuted for providing abortions has presented a major concern with more and more states banning the procedure at the earliest stages of pregnancy, as fear of legal repercussions could prevent people from getting emergency care that they need.
To address this, the White House fact sheet on the executive order reads that “[Health and Human Services] will take steps to ensure all patients – including pregnant women and those experiencing pregnancy loss – have access to the full rights and protections for emergency medical care afforded under the law, including by considering updates to current guidance that clarify physician responsibilities and protections.” The administration will also pursue education and outreach efforts to ensure people are fully informed of their rights.
One of the most major of these rights, as stressed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement after the Dobbs ruling, is that people may legally travel to other states to obtain an abortion, even if they are living somewhere where the procedure is banned. Additionally, the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to provide counsel about reproductive health care, including abortions, regardless of the procedure’s legality in their home state.
“The Department [of Justice] will continue to protect healthcare providers and individuals seeking reproductive health services in states where those services remain legal,” Garland’s statement read.
The executive order outlines one aspect of this protection, as Biden plans to gather pro-bono lawyers to provide legal counsel and representation for those trying to obtain or perform abortions, including traveling out of state to do so.
In another of the order’s measures to protect Americans’ reproductive rights, the White House’s fact sheet reports that “The President has asked the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission to consider taking steps to protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of reproductive health care services.”
Additionally, Health and Human Services will “consider… actions… to better protect sensitive information,” importantly including the dissemination of new guidance informing medical practitioners that they often are prohibited from giving information on people’s reproductive decisions to anyone, including the police.
These measures come in response to growing concerns about authorities in states with abortion bans obtaining information about reproductive health choices through individuals’ electronic data. Many pro-choice organisations are advising the public about the importance of deleting period tracker apps and the likes in the event that such tools are used against someone seeking an abortion. The Biden administration plans to release a guide for consumers on ensuring the protection of data regarding reproductive health as another element of the executive order.
In his speech prior to signing the order, Biden strongly condemned the actions of the Supreme Court. “What we’re witnessing wasn’t a constitutional judgment, it was an exercise in raw political power,” he said.
He noted the manner in which overturning Roe v Wade strips Americans of all sexes of the right to privacy generally, and how this recent ruling has undone decades of progress in the fight for gender equality. “When you read the decision, the Court has made clear: it will not protect the rights of women,” he said.
Reactions to the executive order have been mixed, with some reproductive justice organisations praising it as helpful, but some arguing that it comes overly late and that Biden has much to do to protect reproductive rights and more.
“A lot of the issues we’ve been flagging for the White House ended up in this executive order,” Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Politico. “So I understand the frustration from the movement regarding the speed and I do think we need to keep pushing for more, but this shows they are listening and taking this seriously.”
The Faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law, Lawrence Gostin, saw the order less favourably. “There’s nothing that I saw that would affect the lives of ordinary poor women living in red states,” Gostin said.
Like a mirror image of Biden, conservatives also used the issuing of the executive order as a voting rallying cry, calling it “extreme.”
A recent Pew Research Center poll, however, shows that a majority of Americans (62%) still feel abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 57% disapprove of the Court overturning Roe v Wade.
Even ignoring problems such as the lack of protection for bodily autonomy or privacy, the Supreme Court overturning such a fundamental decision as Roe, puts judicial precedent in danger, threatening all sorts of rights Americans understood to be settled.
“Marriage equality. Contraception,” Biden said in his speech, naming two rights previously understood as guaranteed, but that Justice Clarence Thomas suggested be reevaluated in his Dobbs opinion. “So much more is at risk. This decision affects everyone.”
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