An executive order signed by President Joe Biden Friday morning aims to protect access to reproductive health care — and though it drew approval from several Washington state political and health leaders, specific details about what it will do remain unclear.
The order denounces the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and attempts to protect those seeking abortion from potential penalties they may face. The order cannot, however, restore access to abortion in the more than a dozen states where strict limits or total bans have gone into effect. Washington state’s abortion laws remain unchanged.
Biden acknowledged his office’s powers are limited without congressional approval, and that Democrats don’t have the votes in the current Congress to restore nationwide abortion access.
“The fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law,” Biden said Friday morning. “The challenge is go out and vote. For God’s sake there is an election in November!”
The executive order also instructs the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to push back on efforts to limit access to abortion medication or travel across state lines to access abortion services, though it doesn’t specify what those actions might be.
The order also directs agencies to educate medical providers and insurers about how and when they’re required to share privileged patient information with authorities, in an effort to protect those seeking abortion services. The Federal Trade Commission was also named in the order, tasked with protecting patient privacy and establishing a task force to coordinate federal efforts to safeguard access to abortion.
Biden also hopes to bring together private, pro bono attorneys to encourage “robust” legal representation for those seeking or offering reproductive health care.
In Washington, state and health leaders were quick to support Biden’s announcement, despite the limited effect the order might have.
“Every action to protect abortion access matters,” Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted. “Thanks to @POTUS for keeping the offense going. Congress and states must do their part too.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, also thanked the president for his actions and called on the Senate to “step up and act to codify Roe.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray applauded the order on Twitter, saying she’s “glad to see [Biden] take further action today even with limited executive authority.”
Still, the order comes as Biden continues to face criticism from some in his own party for not acting with more urgency to protect women’s access to abortion. While the state’s elected officials generally praised the president’s actions on social media, Murray noted that “the post-Roe health care crisis is urgent. This fight is far from over.”
Lawrence Gostin, who runs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law, also described Biden’s plans as “underwhelming,” the Associated Press reported.
“There’s nothing that I saw that would affect the lives of ordinary poor women living in red states,” he said.
In Seattle, Mayor Bruce Harrell is seeking a $250,000 investment to expand access to reproductive health care through the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, which serves Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently also proposed the council deem Seattle a “sanctuary city” for those seeking abortions, suggesting the city dissuade Seattle Police from enforcing other state’s bans.
In addition, King County Executive Dow Constantine added the county would allocate $1 million toward expanding abortion access, of which $500,000 would go to the Northwest Abortion Access Fund and $500,000 in emergency funds for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
The Seattle City Council would have to approve such an investment by the city.
Washington became the first state in the country to legalize abortion in 1970, although the protections were limited to the first few months of pregnancy and conditional upon a husband’s approval. A 1991 voter initiative went further, guaranteeing the right to abortion until the point of a fetus’s viability.
That law will remain in effect, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
This year, state lawmakers also passed legislation attempting to make language around abortion access more inclusive, and acknowledging transgender and nonbinary people’s rights to reproductive health care.
But the state could see a significant influx of abortion patients coming from states banning or restricting the procedure, according to estimates from reproductive rights research organizations, including the Guttmacher Institute.
The state Department of Health said in a Friday statement that while health officials “anticipate increased demand for abortion and related services,” the state is still determining how to best ensure access for those seeking care in Washington.
In May, Inslee said at a reproductive rights rally that he would “explore” further codifying abortion rights into Washington law, though potential changes to the state Constitution would require a two-thirds majority in the state House and Senate and a popular vote.
Still, the nation’s anti-abortion activists have gained steam since Roe was overturned.
To mark the end of the court ruling, the national organization Students for Life is planning rallies at state capitols across the country, including in Washington, where the organization has 34 chapters. The rallies aim to highlight “an even more concentrated pro-life effort at the state level,” according to a media advisory.