July 8, 2022 – President Joe Biden today signed an executive order that aims to push back efforts in several states to expand abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
The executive order calls on federal agencies to expand access to reproductive care, address misinformation, and protect the privacy of patients seeking reproductive care.
Out-of-state abortion care
Biden asked the Justice Department to protect women’s right to travel to states where abortion is legal. According to the order, the attorney general will provide legal protections to women who travel out of state for abortions and to health care providers who offer abortions to those patients.
An inter-agency task force on access to reproductive health services will be formed to improve reproductive services and increase women’s access to them. The task force will be led by the Department of Health and Human Services and work with other agencies to implement Biden’s plan. The department is told to “ensure that all patients, including pregnant women and girls, get the emergency care they need under federal law,” Biden said.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned, many worried that data from internet searches, social media and period-tracking apps could be used by law enforcement to prosecute women seeking abortions. Biden said he wants the Federal Trade Commission to “crack down” on data brokers who sell health information.
“The moment you use a search engine or an app on your phone, companies are collecting your data,” he said. “They sell it to other companies, even share it with law enforcement.”
The order is intended to strengthen the protection of health care information and protect patient-provider privacy. The Secretary of Health and Human Services will also issue new guidance for health care providers and consumers on how to protect reproductive health 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 must reconsider the constitutional right to contraception — to use contraception — even among married couples.”
Biden cited the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down a state law that prevented married couples from using contraceptives, even in the privacy of their own homes. 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 the Departments of Health and Human Services to find ways to expand access to reproductive health services such as IUDs, birth control pills and emergency contraception.
Doctors fear criminal charges
Biden said many health care providers fear prosecution in the post-Roe era if a woman miscarries while under their care. He described, for example, a scenario in which a woman comes to the emergency room in every state in the US while having a life-threatening miscarriage. He indicated that some doctors may be so concerned about criminal charges for her treatment that they delay treatment while they call the hospital’s attorney.
“I don’t care what your position is, this is outrageous and dangerous,” he said.
Some of the state’s abortion laws “are so extreme,” Biden said, that they “increased the threat of criminal penalties for doctors and health care providers.”
Doctors need clear guidance about their own responsibilities and protections under federal law, regardless of which state they practice in, Biden added.
“That’s why this executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that all patients — including pregnant women and girls who are pregnant — receive 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 ongoing requirement to cover contraceptive services at no additional cost to consumers as part of the Affordable Care Act; and created guidelines for the public and health care providers regarding the confidentiality of medical information when a woman seeks reproductive health care.
In addition to the new task force, “I am asking the Department of Justice, like they did in the civil rights years, to do something, by everything in their power, to protect those women who want 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 action, 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. “However, more must be done to ensure that women, girls and people who can become pregnant have full access to health care.”
Last week, Nancy Northup, JD, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called on Biden to declare a public health emergency over abortion access. Northup, writing in a publication for The Washington Post, said such a declaration would “give the Department of Health and Human Services the power to help patients get vital abortion care wherever they live. Under the declaration, HHS can enable out-of-state abortion medication to be prescribed and dispensed for those in states with abortion bans.
After today’s executive order, Northup reiterated his request.
“Abortion services have already been suspended in nine states, and that number is expected to rise dramatically,” she said in a statement. “This public health crisis will grow more dire by the day.”
She continued, “We are glad that President Biden is taking action and directing the Department of Health and Human Services to do everything in his power to expand access to medical abortion.”
Meanwhile, the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which opposes abortion rights, criticized Biden’s actions.
“Long gone is the Democratic Party of the ‘safe, legal and rare,’ the group.” said on Twitter. “President Biden has again bowed to the extreme abortion lobby, determined to put the full weight of the federal government behind the promotion of abortion.”