WASHINGTON — Since even before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Democrats have pressured President Biden to take action to protect abortion rights.
And he has been looking for ways to do so, convening a task force to monitor state crackdowns on the procedure, authorizing court action against states that in his view go too far and issuing guidance to pharmacists and other health care providers to reinforce existing laws on privacy and access to medicine.
Then on Wednesday, after weeks of study by his administration, Mr. Biden took further action by signing an executive order to protect abortion rights — by further studying what he could do to protect abortion rights.
The order directed the secretary of health and human services to “consider actions” to guard access to abortion and other health services, including for women who travel over state lines, to “consider all appropriate actions” to advise doctors unsure of their legal obligations and to “evaluate the adequacy” of data collection about abortion.
As unilateral exertions of presidential power go, this was neither particularly remarkable nor what abortion rights supporters have been hoping for. But executive orders directing members of an administration to study this or that issue have become common in recent years as a way for chief executives to project the image of bold action even in areas where their power may be limited.
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“I commit to the American people that we’re doing everything in our power to safeguard access to health care including the right to choose that women had under Roe v. Wade, which was ripped away by this extreme court,” Mr. Biden said in comments delivered by video from the White House residence, where he is isolating with Covid-19.
The order came after voters in Kansas on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have erased abortion rights from the state constitution. Also on Tuesday, the Biden administration sued Idaho over its strict new law that the Justice Department said would inhibit emergency room doctors from performing abortions that are necessary for women facing medical emergencies.
Like other Democrats, Mr. Biden took hope from the Kansas referendum, considering it a potential harbinger of a voter backlash against the champions of what he called “extreme MAGA ideology” seeking to outlaw abortion.
“They don’t have a clue about the power of American women,” Mr. Biden said. “Last night in Kansas, they found out.”
But it was an implicit acknowledgment that even a president has limited power to protect abortion rights unless voters elect more supporters. “Ultimately, Congress must codify the protections of Roe as federal law,” he said. “And if Congress fails to act, the people of this country need to elect senators and representatives who will restore Roe and will protect the right to privacy, freedom and equality.”
As for Mr. Biden’s executive order, White House officials could not explain why he would need to issue a written directive to his own health secretary to study an issue when he could presumably just pick up a phone and tell him to do so. And in fact, the health secretary, Xavier Becerra, who joined Mr. Biden for his video meeting on Wednesday, has already been studying these issues without waiting for a piece of paper from the Oval Office.
But such essentially symbolic executive orders can at times lead to genuine action down the road if a cabinet department or agency comes back with concrete ideas for how to enact a new policy and a president then issues a real order approving it.
In this case, Mr. Becerra is charged with looking for ways to help women in states where abortions are outlawed or severely limited travel to states where they are available. One option mentioned by officials would be to have Medicaid pay for their travel costs, an idea that would draw protests and possibly lawsuits from those who have promoted legal limits on the use of taxpayer funds for abortions.
“This is a big deal for women who can’t afford to have an abortion,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “This is a big deal for women who are trying to figure out how are they going to pay up their health care. This is a big, big deal for them.”
Activists on both sides treated Wednesday’s order seriously. NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group advocating abortion rights, called it “another important step to protect abortion access, and we thank President Biden for flexing the executive authority of his office to address the public health crises we face in post-Roe America.”
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion organization, for its part criticized Mr. Biden for “using the full weight of the federal government to impose abortion on demand up to the moment of birth, illegally forcing taxpayers to fund it.”