President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday morning directing his health department to expand access to abortion pills, beef up enforcement of Obamacare’s birth control coverage mandate and stand up an army of pro bono lawyers to help defend people criminally charged for seeking or providing the procedure.
The order also instructs the administration to “consider” several additional actions to shore up privacy rights for patients using digital apps such as period trackers and those who are now at risk of being reported to law enforcement by a medical provider. They will also “consider” strengthening protections for doctors performing abortions in medical emergencies by updating the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, and plan to create another interagency task force that includes Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Biden had already asked the administration to explore many of these steps, while others remain vague on their exact mechanisms. The president stressed Friday that none of them would fully restore abortion rights to the tens of millions of people who recently lost them and said the solution is at the ballot box in this November’s midterms.
“We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law,” he said, acknowledging the current situation as “frustrating.” “Your vote can make that a reality.”
Biden — flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, neither of whom spoke — predicted that outrage over the loss of abortion access would motivate women to turn out in “record numbers” for the midterm elections.
“I don’t think the court or for that matter the Republicans who for decades have pushed this extreme agenda have a clue about the power of American women,” he said. “But they’re about to find out.”
The action came two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Since then, several states have eliminated access to the procedure, abortion doctors have moved their practices across the country, and progressive advocates are increasingly furious that the administration did not act sooner and more aggressively.
“We’ve received a lot of lip service from this administration and all the gaslighting calls to ‘just vote’ are not enough,” said Sharmin Hossain, the Campaign Director of the Liberate Abortion Coalition, a group of more than 150 reproductive rights organizations. “We can’t wait 190 days [until the election]. People need care now and that wait could mean life or death for people.”
Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the National Women’s Law Center and other progressive groups and elected officials praised the executive order as a positive “first step” that they hope Biden will build on in the coming weeks.
NARAL President Mini Timmaraju told POLITICO that many of the provisions in Friday’s order were the direct result of the information-gathering the Biden administration’s reproductive health task force has been doing for the past few months, and she hopes groups like hers will continue to have influence as different agencies put together the details of the new policies.
“A lot of the issues we’ve been flagging for the White House ended up in this executive order,” she said. “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.”
Yet many activists and abortion providers voiced frustration with the measure’s scope, vagueness and timing and worried it would do little to influence the impact on the ground of mounting state bans.
“Expanding medication abortion access can’t help a state where telemedicine is illegal. Providing protections for traveling across state lines won’t do anything for those who simply can’t handle the logistical aspect, no matter how much money is given to them. And saddest of all, additional contraception funding – which should be the best way to prevent abortion, not abortion bans – will do almost nothing in a state like Alabama, where Title X funding is dispersed through county health departments only and the wait for an appointment for IUDs and implants is already months long,” lamented Robin Marty, the Operations Director of the West Alabama Women’s Center, one of the state’s few remaining clinics. “Maybe the reality is there really is nothing that can be done federally. If so, that should terrify everyone.”
Anti-abortion groups have responded by calling the executive order “extreme” and vowing to use it to turn out conservative voters in November.
“We are committed to exposing Democrats’ abortion extremism to voters across key battleground states so this extreme agenda can be soundly rejected at the ballot box,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America.
Activists and Democratic officials in Congress and around the country, meanwhile, are still pushing the Biden administration to go further, sending letters to Biden asking for travel vouchers and other financial support for people crossing state lines for the procedure and pleading with him to drop the remaining FDA restrictions on abortion pills, which include a requirement that any pharmacy that distributes the drug obtain a special license.
Democrats have also lobbied the Pentagon to allow service members who are stationed in states that have banned abortion or plan to do so to take leave to travel for the procedure, while some governors are pushing for the White House to update the rules around importing drugs to protect people who may go to Canada for abortion pills.
They have also asked the White House to explore the legality and logistics of leasing federal land or federal facilities like Veterans Affairs clinics to abortion providers to restore access in red states, though the administration has deemed that impractical.
“The urgency of the action needs to meet the emergency of the moment,” said Morgan Hopkins with All* Above All. “People need abortions now. Every minute of every day since this decision people have been denied care. Voters are watching very closely for how their elected officials are going to show up for them right now.”
David Lim contributed to this report.
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