Biden signs executive order to protect interstate travel for abortion

President Joe Biden has issued an executive order directing his health secretary to consider taking actions to support patients traveling out of state for their abortion care.

The president’s directive – his second to bolster federal support for reproductive healthcare after the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion – arrives as anti-abortion state lawmakers draft severe restrictions on care in the wake of the ruling.

His latest order on 3 August directs US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to consider allowing states with legal abortion access to use Medicaid waivers to support low-income out-of-state patients forced to travel for their care.

The order also directs the secretary to “consider all appropriate actions” to ensure health providers comply with federal nondiscrimination laws “so that women receive medically necessary care without delay”. It also directs the secretary to improve data collection on maternal health.

In the month after the Supreme Court ruling, at least 10 states have outlawed abortion in nearly all instances, while several state-level restrictions are mired in protracted legal battles, including a lawsuit from the US Department of Justice against Idaho’s abortion ban.

After Congress failed to pass sweeping abortion rights protections, advocates have urged the president to declare a federal health emergency, loosen remaining restrictions on prescription abortion pills, open federal lands and health centres to providers, and apply the full weight of federal agencies against attempts to prosecute providers and people who “aid and abet” abortion care.

Instead, the president has called on his health secretary to find ways to ensure Americans can continue to access care, recognising that there is little that the federal government can do to block state laws.

The Justice Department, a fleet of legal experts and the administration’s newly assembled task force are also scrutinising anti-abortion measures and warning states of their obligations to provide emergency abortion care and medications.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland said the agency will also seek to dismiss a Texas lawsuit that seeks to block the Biden administration from forcing hospitals to provide emergency abortion care.

Health and Human Services also has issued guidance to health providers to adhere to federal nondiscrimination laws and laws governing emergency care. Federal agencies also have warned states that they cannot ban federally-approved abortion drugs based on their spurious assessments on their efficacy or safety.

Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an Interagency Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access at the White House on 3 August.

(AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Biden, addressing the task force virtually while he continues his Covid-19 isolation, characterised the state of abortion care a nationwide healthcare crisis.

The administration will “do everything in our power, in our ability, based on our role, to ensure we protect the women of American for some of the most intimate decisions any human being can make,” according to Vice President Kamala Harris.

“People are scared. When they take a look at these laws being passed … they are concerned, they are confused,” she said. “There is a need for clarity around the rights of individuals and states in this moment.”

Mr Garland said state-level abortion bans have “devastating consequences” for women’s health and civil rights.

“We know the harms caused by these laws have been and will continue to be especially severe for people of colour and those of limited means,” he said.

The Justice Department will be “relentless” in its efforts to protect abortion care, he said.

This is a developing story

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