WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden unveiled new measures Tuesday to protect access to abortion, 100 days after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, and called on Americans to pressure Congress to pass legislation that would ensure abortion is legal across the United States.
The actions came as reproductive rights have become a central issue in political campaigns across the nation before next month’s midterm elections. Democrats have seized on the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to motivate voters to elect lawmakers who will expand abortion rights nationally and block Republicans from imposing further restrictions.
“Right now we’re short a handful of votes,” Biden said as he convened his task force on reproductive health at the White House. “The only way it’s going to happen is if the American people make it happen.”
Biden assailed Republican lawmakers who have been pushing for a national ban on abortion and urged voters to remember what was at stake if Democrats lost control of power in Washington.
“It means that even if you live in a state where extremist Republican officials aren’t running the show, your right to choose will still be at risk,” Biden said.
Most abortions are now banned in at least 14 states, and other states are engaged in legal fights over abortion access. Biden administration officials estimate that nearly 30 million women of reproductive age now live in a state with a ban and that about 22 million women cannot access abortion care after six weeks.
The White House said Tuesday that the Department of Education will issue a reminder to universities that they cannot discriminate against students on the basis of pregnancy, including if a pregnancy has been terminated.
Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services is announcing $6 million in grants to expand access to family planning clinics that receive Title X federal funding. The White House has asked Congress for an additional $400 million for the clinics.
The White House believes that public sentiment is on its side when it comes to abortion.
A Pew Research Center survey this summer showed that 61% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most cases, although the political divide over those questions has become more stark.
In close races around the country, Democrats are amplifying the issue. The House Democrats’ super PAC is investing heavily in advertisements focused on reproductive rights, including one that dramatizes the consequences of a national abortion ban. It features police officers handcuffing doctors, nurses and patients who sought or performed “health care services that have been legal for nearly 50 years.”
Some Republicans have tried to play down abortion in favor of a focus on crime and inflation. However, the issue reemerged last month when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced legislation that would institute a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, has said that he does not expect Republicans to try to enact a national abortion ban.
The Biden administration has faced criticism for failing to do more to protect the abortion rights of women after the court’s decision this year. Despite calls from some activists to declare a public health emergency to expand abortion access, White House officials have been skeptical about what such a move would achieve and leery of inviting new legal fights.
In a memo before the announcement, Jennifer Klein, director of the White House’s Gender Policy Council, laid out some of the steps that the Biden administration has taken to preserve abortion access. She pointed to executive orders defending the right to travel across state lines for an abortion and guidance intended to ensure that doctors can provide abortions in cases in which patients are “presenting with an emergency medical condition” and need to be stabilized.
But White House officials acknowledged that there was only so much that they could do to protect abortion access without Congress and cast reproductive rights as a moral matter.
“I certainly believe that a woman should have the freedom to make decisions about her own body and that her government should not be making those decisions for her,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the task force meeting. “Today extremist so-called leaders are attacking the freedom and liberty of millions of women at a state level.”