WASHINGTON — Vowing to continue the fight against last month’s Supreme Court overruling of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal nationwide, President Biden signed an executive order on Friday that would push back against Republican efforts to limit reproductive choice.
He also denounced those he described as "Republican extremists," who want not only to restrict abortion in individual states but also to enact a nationwide abortion ban. “This is not some imagined horror, it’s already happening,” Biden said from the White House.
He was flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, both of whom have, like him, condemned last month’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which returned the power to regulate abortion entirely to states.
“This was not a decision driven by the Constitution," an impassioned Biden said, depicting the conservative majority’s decision in Dobbs as “an exercise of raw political power."
Since a draft of the Dobbs opinion was made public in May, Democrats have vowed to protect and expand reproductive rights, despite sharp political divisions that have made such efforts all but impossible in Republican-controlled states where Roe was imperiled to begin with. They have also looked to Biden, though a sharply divided Congress and his own diminished popularity significantly constrain his options.
Friday’s executive order can be seen as an acknowledgment of that political reality. “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 in a statement previewing the executive order, which Biden signed after delivering his remarks.
According to the White House, the executive order asks the federal health department to report back within 30 days on plans the White House would like to see put into action, including making abortion pills and contraception easier to access and to ensure that women seeking reproductive care in emergency rooms — including care that could result in pregnancy termination — are not turned away because of doctors’ concerns of legal action.
Acknowledging that many health care resources have shifted to the internet, Biden’s order asks his administration to find ways to “protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of reproductive health care services” and “better protect sensitive information related to reproductive health care.” Advocates worry that in states where abortion is now illegal, digital evidence could be used for prosecution.
The Biden administration will also convene a working group of attorneys “to encourage robust legal representation of patients, providers, and third parties lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country.”
The Supreme Court ruling has left the White House with few options when it comes to vast swaths of the country where the ability to terminate a pregnancy has been either banned or severely curtailed. In his remarks, Biden referenced the plight of a 10-year-old girl who had been raped in Ohio, where abortion has been outlawed. She was forced to travel to neighboring Indiana to terminate the pregnancy that resulted from the assault.
“Imagine being that little girl!" the president said.
The executive order is notable for what it leaves out. Progressives had wanted the Biden administration to provide abortion access on federal lands in states where the procedure was otherwise illegal; Harris said last month that the administration was not in favor of the idea.
Most abortions today are conducted by taking pills — a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol, or “mife and miso,” as they are commonly known — without requiring the patient to undergo a medical procedure. But some states have criminalized those pills alongside the more intensive medical procedure, leaving little recourse for the Biden administration.
After the president’s remarks, White House gender policy council co-chair Jennifer Klein faced questions from reporters about whether the executive order amounted to little more than a restatement of modest measures that had already been expected.
Klein defended the order as an important move to shore up abortion rights in the face of new Republican restrictions. She promised that more abortion-related policy was in the works, but declined to provide details.
“I’m not going to preview our process,” she said.
Democratic Florida state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani praised the executive order but said it was “not enough” for states like her own, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned abortion beyond the 15th week of pregnancy and could enact more stringent measures as he embarks on a likely quest to become the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats hope that abortion motivates their despondent base in November, in congressional midterms that could hand both chambers of Congress to Republicans. The president and his allies have consistently said that voting Democrats into office is the surest way to codify into law the protections that had been afforded by the Roe decision.
“We cannot rely, as a party, on executive action," Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., told Yahoo News before Biden's speech. “Democrats need to bring righteous anger to the campaign trail on this.”
Auchincloss noted that by moving to curtail abortion rights, Republicans are explicitly moving against what polls indicate is an unambiguous desire among Americans to allow women the choice to end a pregnancy, particularly in the first trimester.
“We need to make that painful,” Auchincloss said.
Biden reiterated that message later from the White House. "The court now practically dares the women of America to go to the ballot box," he said, painting the choice as being one between “the mainstream and the extreme.”