WASHINGTON — Under pressure to do more to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, President Biden issued an executive order on Friday designed to ensure access to abortion medication and emergency contraception while preparing for legal fights to come.
But the order is vague about how the president hopes to accomplish those goals, leaving the details largely to Xavier Becerra, his secretary of health and human services, who has said the administration has “no magic bullet” that can restore access to abortion.
And Mr. Biden’s order stops far short of demands from abortion rights advocates, who have criticized him for failing to move quickly to take action after the court’s decision two weeks ago.
Speaking to reporters at the White House before signing the document, Mr. Biden condemned the court’s decision as “terrible, extreme and, I think, so totally wrongheaded.” The order would help protect some access to reproductive services, he said, but the only real way to protect access was to elect more lawmakers who support those services.
“For God’s sake, there’s an election in November. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote,” the president said, noting that the court’s majority in the decision “practically dares” women to assert their political power to put in place laws that restore abortion rights. “Consider the challenge accepted, court.”
In his remarks, Mr. Biden decried news of a 10-year-old girl in Ohio who became pregnant after being raped and was forced to leave her state to get an abortion. Still, he all but acknowledged his powerlessness, saying that “the fastest route available” to restoring a right to abortion is the at the ballot box.
“It’s my hope and a strong belief that women will, in fact, turn out in record numbers to reclaim the rights” the court had taken from them, he said.
In the meantime, he said, “I’m signing this important executive order.”
Opponents of abortion rights criticized the president’s order, accusing the administration of trying to find ways to increase abortions despite the court’s ruling.
“In obvious defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision and to surrender to abortion extremists, President Biden is futilely attempting to maintain his grip on an issue that is no longer a federal one,” said Chelsey Youman, the national legislative adviser for Human Coalition Action, which pursues anti-abortion policies.
But advocates, such as Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the executive order “is an important first step in restoring the rights taken from millions of Americans by the Supreme Court.”
Read More on the End of Roe v. Wade
- ‘Pro-Life Generation’: Many young women mourned the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe. For others it was a moment of triumph and a matter of human rights.
- A Shift in Demographics?: Cities around the South have challenged the supremacy of coastal supercities, attracting creative young people. Will abortion bans put an end to that?
- New York’s Evolving Battle: Before Roe v. Wade, New York City was a haven for women from across the country. Decades later, a new generation of advocates has vowed that it will remain so.
Others have urged Mr. Biden to take bolder action, even if he risks being overturned in court. They want him to declare a public health emergency, a move that they say would enable the administration to move quickly to expand access to abortion, including by ensuring that abortion pills can be prescribed in states where abortion is illegal.
“You need to be willing to take some risks — even if the anticipation is it might not work,” Andrea Miller, the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said before the announcement. “Because we are facing an immediate crisis.”
The president’s order directs Mr. Becerra to develop a report “identifying potential actions” to protect access to abortion but does not say what those actions will be. Mr. Becerra will also identify “steps” to ensure that pregnant women have access to emergency care, it says, by “considering updates to current guidance on obligations specific to emergency conditions and stabilizing care.”
The order does not specify what those updates will be but directs Mr. Becerra to report back to Mr. Biden in 30 days.
In an effort to prepare for legal challenges from abortion opponents, the order directs the attorney general and the White House counsel to “convene a meeting of private pro bono attorneys, bar associations, and public interest organizations” to encourage robust legal representation.
In response to concerns that those seeking abortions could be prosecuted using personal information in emails, text messages or web searches, the order seeks to safeguard patient privacy regarding data about women’s health services.
It asks the chair of the Federal Trade Commission to “consider actions” to protect consumers’ privacy when patients seek information about reproductive care. It also directs Mr. Becerra to “consider actions” to protect patients’ privacy.
The order pledges that the administration will “ensure the safety of patients, providers and third parties” who are delivering or receiving abortion services. But it does not say how agencies will ensure that amid heightened tensions after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Administration officials have said that the president’s hands are largely tied in part because of the Hyde Amendment, a provision in federal law precluding the government from paying for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.
Mr. Becerra has said his agency will work with the Justice Department to ensure women have access to abortion pills — two drugs taken 24 to 28 hours apart and authorized for use during the first weeks of pregnancy — in places where state law conflicts with the judgment of the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the drugs for use and determined that they are safe and effective.
Jen Klein, the executive director of the White House Gender Policy Council, which led the effort to draft the executive order, said Friday that the details are yet to be worked out by Mr. Becerra and others.
“So what the executive order asked the secretary to do is come back within 30 days with a plan,” she told reporters. “So part of this is, as you are noting, are things the president has talked about and what the secretary has already started to work on. And what this asks for is a very deliberate plan and process.”
But the president’s attempt to shift responsibility has not gone over well among some of Mr. Biden’s core supporters, who have repeatedly called on the White House to push to find novel ways around the court’s decision and the subsequent limits on abortion that the ruling automatically imposed in more than a dozen states with Republican-led state legislatures and Republican governors.
Some activists and lawmakers, for example, have urged the president to establish abortion services on federal land or on Native American territories, where state laws banning abortion services might not be enforceable. The White House has dismissed those ideas as legally unworkable and potentially more dangerous for women seeking abortions.
Mr. Biden signed the executive order on Friday before leaving for a weekend at his beach house in Delaware. The fact sheet did not include any of the more far-reaching suggestions about using federal resources to provide abortion services.