- President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to protect access to abortion and reproductive health services in the U.S.
- The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last month.
- The order directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to identify actionable steps to protect and expand access to abortion care.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday that aims to protect access to reproductive healthcare services in the United States.
The executive order comes two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion.
The executive order directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to identify actionable steps to protect and expand access to abortion care, expand education about reproductive healthcare services and protect pregnant people’s safety and security.
The HHS will report back within 30 days, outlining the steps they intend to take.
Though the executive order is an important step to help protect access to abortion care, the President cannot restore the constitutional right to abortion.
“The executive order signals that the President cares deeply about the issue and wants to act but also that his ability to do so is very limited,” Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics and the co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University, told Healthline.
Without Roe, individual states will enact their own abortion policies.
Consequently, millions of Americans will be prohibited from getting an abortion in their communities. Clinics that offer abortion care services will close, and pregnant people will be forced to travel long distances to access safe legal care.
The Court’s ruling on Roe will disproportionally affect people of color, low-income individuals, and those living in rural areas, a fact sheet on the executive order states.
The executive order, though vague, aims to protect access to a range of reproductive healthcare services.
“It calls for the administration to consider measures to protect reproductive health, including access to federally-approved medication abortion pills, patient privacy, and legal support for organizations and people seeking abortion across state lines,” Rev. Katey Zeh, the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said.
Alison Gash, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon, says the executive order won’t meaningfully offset the lack of women’s reproductive access created by the Court’s ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Many of the provisions in the executive order focus on workarounds to abortion policies.
“For instance, identifying ways to maintain access to medication abortion for those in the early stages of their pregnancy. Establishing guidance for medical providers so that individuals can receive an abortion if pregnancy becomes life-threatening,” Gash said.
According to Hoffman, there is a lot of concern about patient privacy because
“Law enforcement can sometimes obtain relevant information from web searches, purchasing records, and other sources outside of healthcare providers,” Hoffman said, adding that states with abortion restrictions generally aim to prosecute abortion providers rather than people who receive an abortion.
That said, there is no guarantee that certain states will not attempt to prosecute pregnant people seeking an abortion in the future.
According to Gash, without patient privacy, pregnant people who are vulnerable to surveillance will be less likely to access healthcare — even for those who want to keep their pregnancies.
“Any possibility that they may be criminalized if there is a bad pregnancy outcome could have a chilling effect on women seeking prenatal care–especially for low-income pregnant women or women of color who are already heavily surveilled in healthcare settings,” Gash said.
One of the executive order’s goals is to protect patient privacy and further safeguard relationships between patients and healthcare providers.
It hopes to issue new guidance on how HIPAA protects people’s sensitive health information and protects those seeking information about reproductive healthcare services.
“The executive order, again, does not provide any concrete protections. It just asks the Chair of the FTC and the HHS Secretary to consider actions to protect patient privacy,” Hoffman said.
Abortion rights advocates have suggested that President Biden take additional steps, such as declaring a public health emergency or expanding abortion services on federal land or within Native American territories, which are out of state law.
According to Gash, the President is still considering declaring the attack on abortion rights a public health emergency — to address the staffing and financial burdens clinics are experiencing — but that could come with significant legal conflict.
Zeh says that the President could also allocate resources for pregnant people who have to travel for care and make medication abortion, which is federally approved, available everywhere via telemedicine services, Zeh says.
“Hopefully, this executive order is a first step, and the President will continue to exercise his power to protect people who need abortion care right now,” Zeh said.
And although Biden’s power is limited, Congress’ power is not — Congress could pass a law that keeps abortion legal, says Hoffman.
“People who feel strongly about reproductive rights should be sure to vote in Congressional elections,” Hoffman said.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday that aims to protect access to reproductive healthcare services in the United States. The executive order does not provide concrete steps but directs the HHS to identify actions to help expand access to abortion care, expand education about reproductive healthcare services and protect pregnant people’s safety and security. The HHS will report back within 30 days.