WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will take executive action Friday to protect access to abortion, the White House said, as he faces mounting pressure from fellow Democrats to be more forceful on the subject after the Supreme Court ended a constitutional right to the procedure two weeks ago.
The White House said Biden will speak about “protecting access to reproductive health care services.” The actions he was expected to outline are intended to try to mitigate some potential penalties women seeking abortion may face after the ruling but are limited in their ability to safeguard access to abortion nationwide.
Biden is expected to formalize 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.
His executive order will also direct 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 utilize abortion services. He will also ask the Federal Trade Commission to take steps to protect the privacy of those seeking information about reproductive care online and establish an interagency task force to coordinate federal efforts to safeguard access to abortion.
The White House said it will also convene volunteer lawyers to provide women and providers with pro bono legal assistance to help them navigate new state restrictions after the Supreme Court ruling.
The order, after the high court’s June 24 ruling that ended the nationwide right to abortion and left it to states to determine whether or how to allow the procedure, 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 decision in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned the court’s 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.
“Ultimately, Congress is going to have to act to codify Roe into federal law,” Biden said last week during a virtual meeting with Democratic governors.
The tasking to the Justice Department and HHS is expected to push the agencies to fight in court to protect women, but it conveys no guarantees that the judicial system will take their side against potential prosecution by states that have moved to outlaw abortion.
“President Biden has made clear that the only way to secure a woman’s right to choose is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe as federal law,” the White House said. “Until then, he has committed to doing everything in his power to defend reproductive rights and protect access to safe and legal 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.
Gostin said, “We basically have two Americas.” There’s one where people have access to a full range of healthcare, and “another where citizens don’t have the same rights to the safe and effective treatments as the rest of the country.”
Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the AP that the agency was looking at how Medicaid could cover travel for abortions, along with a range of other proposals, but acknowledged that “Medicaid’s coverage of abortion is extremely limited.”
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.
The decision by the court is expected to make abortion illegal in over a dozen states and severely restricted in others. Privacy experts say that could make women vulnerable because their personal data could be 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.
AP writers Marcy Gordon and Hillary Powell contributed to this report.
For AP’s full coverage of the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, go to https://apnews.com/hub/abortion.