President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Only a national law can bring back a national right that some states have taken away from women. Biden can reinforce access to information and the right to seek care in other states.

President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order that aims to protect access to reproductive health care and those who seek and provide abortions in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion.

Biden’s executive order attempts to protect and expand access to medication abortion and emergency contraception, provide legal support for people seeking or providing abortions, and protect patient privacy from Republican lawmakers intent on targeting women. 

Republican lawmakers in states that have already banned abortion—including Wisconsin—have been discussing ways to block women from crossing state lines and are crafting legislation to further restrict women’s abilities to get the care they need.

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin asked Biden on June 8 to issue executive orders to protect abortion access. The request came shortly after her bill to codify the protections in Roe—the Women’s Health Protection Act—failed by one vote when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) joined all Republicans in opposing it.

The president’s actions on Friday represent his most concrete response yet to the Court’s decision, a massively unpopular reversal of women’s rights driven by extreme right-wing judges and politicians. 

“That wasn’t about the Constitution or the law. It was about a deep, long-seething antipathy towards Roe and the broader right to privacy,” Biden said during his speech at the White House. “The Court has made clear it will not protect the rights of women. Period.”

Biden spoke forcefully about the need to fight back and expand the Democrats’ majority in the Senate in order to reform the filibuster and codify Roe’s previously guaranteed protections and rights into law. He also highlighted what could happen if Republicans take control of the government. 

“We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law. Your vote can make that a reality,” Biden said. “We can’t wait. Extreme Republican governors, extreme Republican state legislatures, and Republican extremists in the Congress overall — all of them have not only fought to take away the right — our rights — but they’re now determined to go as far as they can.”

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

Just as Biden asked voters to give him more Democratic senators, Baldwin has not been shy about asking voters to replace her Republican colleague, Sen. Ron Johnson.

“Please send me a Democratic partner in the US Senate!” she told delegates to the state Democratic convention two weeks ago in La Crosse.

While Biden cannot single-handedly restore the nationwide right to abortion, the measures taken Friday represent a use of executive power to defend abortion access where possible.

According to legal expert Leah Litman, Biden’s effort seems designed to protect patients who travel out of state to obtain abortion care. Republican lawmakers in states that have already banned abortion have been discussing ways to block women from crossing state lines and are crafting legislation to further restrict women’s abilities to get the care they need. 

Biden’s order:

  • Directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand access to emergency contraception and long-acting reversible contraception like intrauterine devices (IUDs). 
  • Instructs HHS to clarify that under current federal law, emergency rooms cannot turn away patients or deny them care if they are in a medical crisis. This is intended to ensure patients have access to “the full rights and protections for emergency medical care afforded under the law.” This provision could rectify concerns about abortion bans preventing treatment for ectopic pregnancies and miscarraiges. 
  • Directs US Attorney General Merrick Garland and the White House counsel to coordinate a group of volunteer attorneys, bar associations, and public interest groups to defend patients and medical providers who face state-level charges for “lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country.” According to the White House, those lawyers could defend people who are prosecuted for traveling from a state that has banned abortion to one where it remains legal.
  • Asks AG Garland to work with the Department of Homeland Security and consider actions to protect patients, providers, clinics, pharmacies, and anyone else involved in delivering reproductive health care services.
  • Instructs the Federal Trade Commission to consider taking actions to protect consumer privacy when people seek information about reproductive health care services. 
  • Directs HHS to consider taking additional steps to protect sensitive information related to reproductive health care. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has already directed his department to issue guidance clarifying that in most cases, doctors and abortion providers are not required to disclose the private information of patients, including to law enforcement. In some cases, they’re specifically barred from disclosing such information.
  • Commands HHS to increase outreach and education “to ensure that Americans have access to reliable and accurate information about their rights and access to care.” 
  • Directs Becerra to submit a report to the president within 30 days on the actions his department is taking on the matter. 
  • Establishes an interagency task force on abortion access, which will include AG Garland.

While Biden can only do so much on his own, his efforts represent a pushback on what he describes as the Republican Party’s war on freedoms. 

“The Court and its allies are committed to moving America backward with fewer rights, less autonomy, and politicians invading the most personal of decisions,” Biden said on Friday. “We cannot allow an out-of-control Supreme Court, working in conjunction with the extremist elements of the Republican Party, to take away freedoms and our personal autonomy.”