President Biden signs modest executive order to protect abortion rights

Washington DC - President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday aimed at protecting women’s reproductive rights, a response to rising pressure from within his own party to address last month’s Supreme Court ruling revoking federal protections for abortion with greater urgency and conviction.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday aimed at protecting women's reproductive rights.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday aimed at protecting women's reproductive rights.  © Collage: SAMUEL CORUM / AFP / MARIO TAMA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

"We cannot allow an out-of-control Supreme Court, working in conjunction with extremist elements of the Republican Party, to take away freedoms and our personal autonomy" Biden said in a speech from the White House.

"The choice we face as a nation is between the mainstream and the extreme, between moving forward and moving backwards, between allowing politicians to enter the most personal parts of our lives and protecting the right of privacy.

"This is a moment – the moment – a moment to restore the rights that have been taken away from us."

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The president’s modest executive order does little to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s cataclysmic June 24 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which leaves states free to ban abortion procedures outright. Fully restoring abortion rights, Biden made clear, is out of his hands – but very much in the hands of voters this fall.

"I know it’s frustrating," he said, explaining that the only response that would override the court’s ruling – codifying abortion protections in federal law – must come from Congress. But Biden, while giving voice to his party’s frustration, refused to sugarcoat the political reality, conceding that Democrats don’t have the votes to act now.

"We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law," Biden said. "Your vote can make that a reality."

Biden says women "can determine the outcome of this issue"

President Biden stressed the importance of voting, saying that "women are not without electoral or political power."
President Biden stressed the importance of voting, saying that "women are not without electoral or political power."  © ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

Framing the court’s decision as a challenge to America’s women, he expressed confidence that they would rise to it by voting in droves in November’s midterm elections. A wave of voters galvanized by a desire to restore abortion rights might be Democrats’ best and only shot at overcoming the electorate’s frustrations over inflation and inaction on a number of campaign priorities.

"Women are not without electoral or political power," he said. "You ... can determine the outcome of this issue."

The order, which he signed with Vice President Kamala Harris, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco looking on, aims to preserve access to Food and Drug Administration-approved abortion medications such as mifepristone and misoprostol, and to protect patient privacy rights and access to contraceptives, including intrauterine devices.

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It also calls for Becerra to submit a report within 30 days on how his department can increase public outreach to those seeking to access the drugs and contraceptive devices outlined in Biden’s executive order. And it calls for Health and Human Services to recruit pro bono lawyers to represent women in future court cases.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has called on Biden to do more, tweeted that the White House should use "every tool possible to address this emergency."

Nancy Northup, president and chief executive at the Center for Reproductive Rights, expressed support for Biden’s order but called on him to do more, stating that his directive "should include HHS immediately declaring a public health emergency and using the emergency powers of the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) to protect access to abortion for as many people as possible."

Democrats and progressives want Biden to do more

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends a pro-choice rally after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends a pro-choice rally after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.  © NATHAN HOWARD / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

Biden spoke Friday from the Roosevelt Room and relied on a teleprompter, reading in a measured tone with few outward displays of emotion. He began his remarks by blasting the ruling overturning Roe as "terrible, extreme and I think so totally wrong-headed."

As he spoke about the executive order, he expressed more visible outrage about the ruling’s impact, which could force young girls to bear their rapist’s child and deny even married couples access to contraception.

"What century are they in?" he asked of the court’s five conservatives who signed onto the majority opinion.

Many Democrats, outraged by the ruling and frustrated over their own party’s inability to muster a response despite controlling the White House and Congress, publicly complained about the apparent lack of urgency or emotion from the president.

Many progressives in Congress have been calling for executive action, as lawmakers wondered why the White House was caught so flat-footed when the ruling came down, especially given that a draft of the opinion overturning Roe had leaked in early May. Two of the most popular, Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for the administration to establish abortion clinics on federal land, a move the White House has ruled out.

"I want to see Joe Biden as mad as every woman who was marching on the streets (after the Roe ruling)," said Amanda Litman, a progressive organizer who supports first-time candidates seeking elected office. "What are you so afraid about? They aren’t responding with the kind of rage we feel."

Cover photo: Collage: SAMUEL CORUM / AFP / MARIO TAMA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

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