Biden outlines new steps aimed at bolstering abortion rights

Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.
Abortion-rights advocates protest in front of the Supreme Court on June 30, 2022.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden delivered an emotional speech Friday announcing an array of steps aimed at bolstering abortion rights, responding to growing demands from activists that he take bolder and more forceful action two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, gave his fiery and at times angry remarks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House before signing an executive order to enhance access to reproductive health-care services. While abortion activists generally welcomed the move, many said it would likely do little for women in states where abortion is banned.

Biden himself acknowledged the limits of his executive powers as he railed against the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, calling it “the Supreme Court’s terrible, extreme and, I think, so totally wrongheaded decision.” He said the court’s majority is “playing fast and loose with the facts” by misrepresenting the history of abortion rights in America.

“What we’re witnessing wasn’t a constitutional judgment,” Biden said. “It was an exercise in raw political power.”

While outlining steps to protect doctors, safeguard access to abortion pills, mobilize lawyers and accomplish other goals, Biden reiterated his conviction that the best way to enshrine abortion rights is through the ballot box. Specifically, he said the Senate needs two more pro-abortion rights senators to codify Roe, and he urged women to vote to reclaim their rights.

“The court has made clear it will not protect the rights of women — period. Period,” the president said. “After having made the decision based on a reading of a document that was frozen in time in the 1860s when women didn’t even have the right to vote, the court now practically dares the women of America to go to the ballot box and restore the very rights they’ve just taken away.”

Biden grew most visibly angry when he recounted reports that a 10-year-old girl who was raped had been forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana in search of a state where she could still get an abortion.

“Ten years old. Ten years old! Raped, six weeks pregnant, already traumatized, was forced to travel to another state,” he said. “Imagine being a little girl — just imagine being a little girl. . . . A 10-year-old girl shouldn’t be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child.”

Biden’s order directs Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to identify ways the administration can help expand abortion access. Most notably, Biden signaled his intention to protect access to medication abortion, or abortion pills, and ensure that pregnant people in emergency situations can access the care they need even if their state has banned abortion.

Still, some abortion rights activists said Biden’s proposals are unlikely to make medication abortion accessible in states that have banned abortion. Others, while applauding the president’s tone, said he should have delivered the speech earlier.

Biden in his order also directed Becerra to protect access to “the full range of reproductive health care services,” including emergency contraception, which many abortion rights advocates fear could soon face further restrictions from antiabortion lawmakers.

In a nod to legal battles ahead, Biden ordered the attorney general and the White House counsel to convene groups of private pro bono attorneys, bar associations and public interest groups to encourage legal representation for those seeking or offering reproductive health services.

“Such representation could include protecting the right to travel out of state to seek medical care,” according to a White House statement.

Biden also sought to address concerns about patient privacy. He asked the chair of the Federal Trade Commission to consider steps to protect the privacy of consumers who seek information about reproductive health services. HHS will also consider additional actions to prevent information about patients from being disclosed.

Biden is also establishing an interagency Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access, which will coordinate throughout the government on other potential policies.

Conservatives said Biden was willfully misstating and exaggerating the impact of the court’s decision. Women’s medical privacy rights, for example, are already protected by law, they said.

“Faced with mounting pressure by pro-abortion radicals, President Biden is using his executive authority to create false panic and spread harmful misinformation surrounding care for women and unborn children, and to inject lies into the public discussion,” said Denise Harle, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

She added, “The president’s new order is a monumental misuse of resources that could instead be channeled toward actually helping pregnant mothers who need support so that they don’t feel like abortion is their only choice.”

While it is far from clear how much impact the actions will have, advocates have been urging the president to at least try to fight back against abortion rights restrictions, rather than second-guessing them before even making an attempt.

Biden’s actions come two weeks after the Supreme Court upended five decades of federal abortion rights.

White House officials have defended his sense of urgency, pointing to an initial speech he gave in the aftermath of the decision and saying the administration is determined to do everything it legally can. Biden’s allies have also warned against raising expectations about what a president can accomplish unilaterally in the face of a decisive Supreme Court ruling.

Still, a growing number of Democrats have accused Biden of failing to use the moment to speak out more forcefully and to galvanize the party, noting that there was plenty of time to plan after a draft of the Supreme Court decision leaked two months ago.

Last week, after pressure from some Democrats, Biden called for overturning the filibuster to help codify abortion rights, though two key senators, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have reaffirmed their opposition to such a move, make it highly unlikely. Biden has so far resisted other efforts that Democrats have been pushing him to adopt, and his actions Friday are unlikely to satisfy those wanting bolder steps.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has pressed Biden to expand the Supreme Court, for example, but he has reaffirmed that he will not consider such a move, which would require congressional action in any case. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is among those calling on him to open federal lands to abortion clinics, a tactic the White House has rejected, saying it could jeopardize the safety of women who travel to the clinics.

Some Democrats have urged the president to declare a national health emergency, which they say would give the government more authority to guarantee access to abortion pills, for example. Others have questioned the effectiveness of such a move and noted it would face legal challenges.

Many Democrats welcomed Biden’s announcement Friday as a move in the right direction. Warren write on Twitter that “today’s actions are important first steps.”

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, highlighted the number of Black and poor women who lack access to abortion and called Biden’s actions “a good start.”

“We’re encouraged by the Biden-Harris administration’s work to defend abortion rights and access, and look forward to continuing partnership with the administration to make good on its commitment to championing reproductive freedom,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But Ghazaleh Moayedi, an abortion provider who has worked in Texas and Oklahoma, said Biden’s actions fell far short of what was needed.

Abortion, including medication abortion, is now banned in 13 states, and many legal uncertainties have arisen about what doctors and health-care providers can do even in life-threatening situations. Moayedi said many women — including immigrants, military members and the incarcerated — will struggle to find care, regardless of Biden’s order.

“I want to be hopeful, y’all. I really do. I hope this is a first step, before BOLD action,” she wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread. “My community is suffering. We needed help 10 months ago. We are pleading that the administration we voted for, protect our human rights.”

Many abortion rights advocates were hoping for bolder, more creative solutions, said Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of the abortion rights group We Testify. “I’m glad that 18 months into his presidency he has finally figured out he needs to do something about this abortion access crisis, but this is not the list that our movement has given him,” Sherman said.

By issuing this executive order, she added, “Biden is choosing not to act.”

Other abortion rights advocates were frustrated by the vagueness of the order, particularly its language on medication abortion.

In the executive order, Biden tasks the Department of Health and Human Services with “identifying potential actions” that would protect access to medication abortion. But it’s unclear how the administration could intervene in states where abortion pills are already restricted.

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D, said the language could confuse lawmakers, advocates and, most important, patients. Some, she said, might be left wondering whether they can now legally order medication abortion online in states where the procedure is banned.

“It’s very unclear,” Eskamani said. “We want to be as clear as possible to folks who need care, especially in places like Florida that are restricting access.”

But some Democrats, like Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said the Biden administration’s options are limited. “They have the decision to make about what they are legally able to do,” she said. “I hope they will continue to push that . . . but I don’t think there is a magic thing the executive branch can do.”

Biden has stressed from the outset that presidential power can do only so much in the face of a sweeping Supreme Court decision, and he has continued calling for a legislative response, and for voters to elect representatives who will enact a national law guaranteeing abortion rights.

“Go out and vote, for God’s sake,” Biden said Friday. “There’s an election in November. Vote, vote, vote, vote.”

He also said that he and his party are all that is standing in the way of plans by congressional Republicans to ban abortion nationwide, a preview of a likely Democratic message in November’s midterm elections.

“Let me tell you something. As long as I’m president, it won’t happen because I’ll veto it,” Biden said. “So the choice is clear. If you want to change the circumstance for women and even little girls in this country, please go out and vote.”