President Biden signs order on abortion access after US Supreme Court ruling

ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy reports on how the US president is trying to protect women's rights to access reproductive healthcare in America

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to protect access to abortion after the Supreme Court ended a constitutional right to the procedure.

The actions President Biden outlined on Friday 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.

He acknowledged the limitations facing his office, saying it would require an act of Congress to restore access to abortion in the more than a dozen states where strict limits or total bans have already gone into effect.

“The fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law,” Mr Biden said.

“The challenge is go out and vote. For God’s sake there is an election in November. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote!”

The president formalised 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.

The Supreme Court's ruling on abortion has divided the US. Credit: AP

His executive order also directed 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 utilise abortion services.

He is also asking 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 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 Mr 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 Organisation overturned the court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. 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.

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On Friday, Mr Biden repeated his sharp criticism of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in striking down what had been a half-century constitutional right to abortion. “Let’s be clear about something from the very start, this was not a decision driven by the Constitution,” Biden said, accusing the court’s majority of “playing fast and loose with the facts.”

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 Mr 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. Mr Gostin encouraged the president 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. Mr Gostin said there are currently two Americas - 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”.

President Joe Biden signs an executive order on abortion access during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Credit: AP

Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said 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”. Mr 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.