Joe Biden is set to sign a second executive order on Wednesday that aims to protect access to reproductive healthcare after the US supreme court struck down the constitutional right to abortion.
Most significantly, the order directs the Health and Human Services agency to consider ways to expand coverage for patients traveling out of state for reproductive healthcare. Biden’s order does not detail how this could be achieved; currently, government-subsidized Medicaid health insurance plans cover medically necessary abortions in only 16 states and do not reimburse patients who leave their state to seek an abortion.
A senior administration official told the Guardian that HHS will soon have more details on provisions to help women served by Medicaid health coverage cover certain costs of traveling for reproductive care.
Following the supreme court’s June decision overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling that codified abortion rights for half a century, the procedure is now banned in at least 10 states and partially banned in another four. Bans and restrictions are being legally challenged in several other states, with abortion rights in about half the country under threat. On Tuesday, abortion rights were on the ballot in Kansas, where voters weighed whether the state legislature should restrict abortion rights protected by the state constitution.
As a result, people in states where abortions are restricted or clinics are scarce have been more frequently pushed across state lines to seek treatment. Many are unable to afford to do so – or are turning to non-profit abortion funds to help defray the costs.
This latest order, which Biden is expected to sign at the kick-off meeting for an interagency task force on reproductive rights led by Kamala Harris, will also direct HHS to help health workers navigate the confusing and shifting rules on abortion care following the supreme court decision, and track maternal and reproductive health outcomes to better assess the impacts of the court’s decision.
This order, like Biden’s previous executive order on reproductive rights, is likely to face criticisms for failing to provide many details on how and when abortion rights will be protected. Although the White House is limited in what it could do to improve access to abortion and reproductive rights without Congressional action, advocates have urged federal agencies to make it easier to access abortion pills in states where they remain legal, and explicitly direct hospitals receiving federal funds for low income healthcare programs to provide abortion drugs in life-threatening emergencies.
In July, Biden signed an executive order directing HHS to “take action” to protect access to medication for abortion and update guidance to ensure that emergency care is not affected by abortion restrictions. It also directed the attorney general and the White House counsel to convene private lawyers and public interest organizations to encourage “robust legal representation of patients, providers and third parties lawfully seeking or offering reproductive healthcare services throughout the country”. And it directed agencies to develop how-to guides for patients to protect their online data to shield themselves from state and local surveillance.
Pressure on the Biden administration to act has ramped up as women in states where abortion is banned or restricted increasingly find themselves in dangerous, life-threatening situations, while doctors find themselves in legal jeopardy for providing essential healthcare. Patients have also struggled to receive routine care for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
The administration’s Department of Justice announced this week it is suing Idaho over the state’s near-total abortion ban, set to take effect on 25 August. “The justice department is going to use every tool we have to ensure reproductive freedom,” the attorney general Merrick Garland told reporters on Tuesday.
More than 60% of Americans believe in the legal right to abortion in all or most cases, according to a Pew Research Center poll from June.
But Republicans in the Senate – which is evenly divided along party lines – have already blocked a bill in May that would have invalidated abortion restrictions nationwide, and are poised to defeat a narrrower, bipartisan measure introduced this week that would guarantee access to contraceptives and invalidate the toughest abortion restrictions.