World

Biden signs executive order on abortion that aims to safeguard access, deter prosecution

Under mounting pressure from fellow Democrats to be more forceful in response to the Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe v. Wade, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to try to protect access to abortion Friday.
U.S. President Joe Biden hands the pen to Vice-President Kamala Harris as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra stands nearby after signing an executive order to help safeguard women's access to abortion and contraception. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday condemned the "extreme" Supreme Court majority that ended a constitutional right to abortion and delivered an impassioned plea for Americans upset by the decision to "vote, vote, vote vote" in the November midterms.

Under mounting pressure from fellow Democrats to be more forceful in response to the ruling, he signed an executive order to try to protect access to the procedure.

The actions Biden outlined are intended to head off some potential penalties that women seeking abortion may face after the ruling, but his order cannot restore access to abortion in the more than a dozen states where strict limits or total bans have gone into effect.

About a dozen more states are set to impose additional restrictions.

Biden acknowledged the limitations facing his office, saying it would require an act of Congress to restore nationwide access to the way it was before the June 24 decision.

"The fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law," Biden said. "The challenge is go out and vote. For God's sake, there is an election in November!"

Catalina Leona and Terri Chen, staff at Houston Women's Reproductive Services, which no longer provides abortion care, watch a livestream of Biden delivering remarks before signing an executive order. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Order aims to safeguard abortion pill access and information

Biden's action formalized instructions to the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to push back on efforts to limit the ability of women to access federally approved abortion medication or to travel across state lines to access clinical abortion services.

He was joined by Vice-President Kamala Harris, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in the Roosevelt Room as he signed the order.

His executive order also directs agencies to work to educate medical providers and insurers about how and when they are required to share privileged patient information with authorities — an effort to protect women who seek or obtain abortion services.

Abortion-rights activists setup an educational booth on abortion pills as they protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington on July 4. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

He is also asking the Federal Trade Commission to take steps to protect the privacy of those seeking information about reproductive care online and establish a task force to co-ordinate federal efforts to safeguard access to abortion.

Biden is also directing his staff to line up volunteer lawyers to provide women and providers with pro bono legal assistance to help them navigate new state restrictions.

Not enough support in House, Senate

The order comes as Biden has faced criticism from some in his own party for not acting with more urgency to protect women's access to abortion. The court's decision in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Since the decision, Biden has stressed that his ability to protect abortion rights by executive action is limited without congressional action, and stressed that Democrats do not have the votes in the current Congress to do so.

"We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe," he said. "Your vote can make that a reality."

Anti-abortion demonstrators celebrate outside the United States Supreme Court after the ruling came down. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)

Biden for the first time last week announced his support for changing Senate rules to allow a measure to restore nationwide access to abortion to pass by simple majority rather than the usual 60-vote threshold required to end a filibuster. However, at least two Democratic lawmakers have made clear they won't support changing Senate rules.

He predicted that women would turn out in "record numbers" in frustration over the court's decision and said he expected "millions and millions of men will be taking up the fight beside them."

WATCH | Biden urged Americans who want to protect abortion rights to vote in November's midterms:

Biden tries to safeguard reproductive rights with executive order

3 months ago
Duration 2:13
U.S. President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to safeguard some reproductive rights across the country. It does not legalize abortion, but instead improves access to emergency contraception, legal services and pills that can induce abortion in early pregnancy stages.

Accused court of 'fast and loose with the facts'

On Friday, he repeated his sharp criticism of the Supreme Court's reasoning in striking down what had been a half-century constitutional right to abortion.

"Let's be clear about something from the very start: this was not a decision driven by the Constitution," Biden said. He accused the court's majority of "playing fast and loose with the facts."

He spoke emotionally of a 10-year-old Ohio girl reported to have been forced to travel out of state to terminate a pregnancy after being raped, noting that some states have instituted abortion bans that don't have exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

"A 10-year- old should be forced to give birth to a rapist's child?" an incredulous Biden nearly shouted. "I can't think of anything more extreme."

'This was not a decision driven by the Constitution,' Biden said of the Roe reversal. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Biden said in the November congressional elections, "The choice we face as a nation is between the mainstream or the extreme."

His directions to the Justice Department and Health and Human Services push the agencies to fight in court to protect women, but the order conveys no guarantees that the judicial system will take their side against potential prosecution by states that have moved to outlaw abortion.

NARAL Pro-Choice America president Mini Timmaraju called Biden's order "an important first step in restoring the rights taken from millions of Americans by the Supreme Court."

But Lawrence Gostin, who runs the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law, described Biden's plans as "underwhelming."

"There's nothing that I saw that would affect the lives of ordinary poor women living in red states," he said.

Gostin encouraged Biden to take a more forceful approach toward ensuring access to medication abortion across the country and said Medicaid should consider covering transportation to other states for the purposes of getting abortions.

Data privacy concerns

Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, recently told the AP that the agency had been looking at whether Medicaid could cover travel for abortions, but acknowledged that "Medicaid's coverage of abortion is extremely limited."

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser condemned Biden's order, saying, "President Biden has once again caved to the extreme abortion lobby, determined to put the full weight of the federal government behind promoting abortion."

Biden's move was the latest scramble to protect the data privacy of those contemplating or seeking abortion, as regulators and lawmakers reckon with the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling.

Abortion rights activists worry that data gleaned from period tracker apps could be used to prosecute women who access abortions in states that have banned or restricted them. (Isabel Infantes/Reuters)

Privacy experts say women could be vulnerable if their personal data is used to surveil pregnancies and shared with police or sold to vigilantes. Online searches, location data, text messages and emails, and even apps that track periods could be used to prosecute people who seek an abortion — or medical care for a miscarriage — as well as those who assist them, experts say.

Privacy advocates are watching for possible new moves by law enforcement agencies in affected states — serving subpoenas, for example, on tech companies such as Google, Apple, Bing, Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp, services like Uber and Lyft, and internet service providers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast.

Local prosecutors may go before sympathetic judges to obtain search warrants for users' data.

Last month, four Democratic lawmakers asked the FTC to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users by enabling the collection and sale of their personal data to third parties.

now