The president boasted his administration would use ‘every tool available’ to secure abortion access. So why is his order so lacking?

Probably the most enthusiastic assessment that an abortion rights advocate can make for President Biden’s executive order that aims to “protect access to reproductive health services” is that it’s better than nothing. That’s because the order, signed by Biden in a brief ceremony at the White House on Friday as vice-president Harris and secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra looked on, has been spoken of by the White House in only the vaguest terms. The order consists of a series of directives aimed at HHS and the justice department, but these directives are imprecisely worded. They create few obligations for these agencies; they appear designed not to ruffle any feathers. It’s unclear what, precisely, the order will mean for abortion access, and specifically what actions those agencies will now be required to take.

The executive order calls for expanded access to abortion medication in states where abortion has not been outlawed; it doesn’t say whether this will include eliminating the current, medically unnecessary restrictions on the drugs or making them available over the counter, as abortion rights advocates have called for. It asks HHS to make “updates to current guidelines”, for emergency medical care, in an effort to reduce deaths in pregnant women whose doctors refuse to intervene in medical crises for fear of harming a fetus and incurring liability; it does not call for HHS to solidify these guidelines into a rule that would more forcefully protect women’s lives.

Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

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