As Americans struggle to grasp the rapidly changing abortion laws across different states, the Biden administration unveiled a plan Tuesday to support access to abortion and other family planning services.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called Friday’s Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade “despicable, but also predictable,” promising the department will do “everything within the legal limit of the law to reach patients and support providers” under President Joe Biden’s directive.
“There is no magic bullet,” he told reporters in Tuesday’s briefing. “We will leave no stone unturned. All options are on the table.”
But a closer look at the administration’s plan to protect abortion services reveals few concrete details on strategy and implementation, said legal experts and abortion-rights activists.
“While we fully understand that the White House has been looking at numerous options, the rubber meets the road now,” said Sonja Spoo, director of reproductive rights campaigns at UltraViolet, a national gender justice organization. “We need to see details and how we can respond to this crisis in a way that matches the moment.”
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Becerra outlined five main strategies during Tuesday’s briefing, in addition to launching the Reproductive Access Task Force this year and a website to educate Americans on reproductive rights.
The Health secretary said federal officials are working to increase access to medication abortion in limited circumstances, ensure providers have appropriate training and resources, and direct the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to take legal steps to protect family planning care.
“This is a critical moment in history,” Becerra said. “How we respond will speak to how we view the rights, dignity and well-being of women everywhere.”
But one of the more actionable items on the department’s list, experts say, may be examining the federal government’s authority under the Emergency Medical Treatment Act, which requires emergency departments treat patients until they’re stabilized.
“They could hold providers’ feet to the fire to say you have to provide life-saving care or emergency care in your hospital, which could include abortion care,” said Katherine Kraschel, executive director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School. “EMTALA requirements could be one thing to lean into if hospitals feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and want to provide abortion care.”
Becerra said he’s also directing the Office for Civil Rights to ensure patient privacy for those seeking reproductive health care.
The Office for Civil Rights enforces the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which sets the national standard to protect patient health information, Kraschel said. Strengthening this office could protect against providers releasing a patient’s sensitive information without a court order.
“We don’t want anyone’s private health information, for example, to be leaked in ways that violate federal law,” Becerra said. “We will make sure that we both investigate and then enforce the law to make sure that providers are in compliance.”
Although the federal government has some authority, Kraschel said health care regulation and the practice of medicine is generally invested with the states. But abortion-rights activists argue the Biden administration had weeks to prepare after a draft opinion in Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade leaked May 2.
The unprecedented breach of Supreme Court protocol, which showed how the conservative justices might overturn Roe, led to protests across the country. The opinion Friday appeared to closely track with the leaked draft.
“Even if we didn’t have the leaked draft opinion, we knew this was coming since Trump was elected,” said Spoo, expressing frustration at the Biden administration’s response. “What people need to see politically is a fight. They need to see that our president and our leaders across government are fighting for our rights.”
The president addressed the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday, calling it a “sad day” for the judicial branch and the country. Biden said that the onus is now on Congress to restore federal abortion rights protections.
"And if Congress, as it appears, lacks the votes to do that now, voters need to make their voices heard," he said, referencing the midterm elections.
But Americans can't wait until elections in November, Spoo said.
“We need action now," she said. "We need something of substance that matches the moment and a boldness that meets the need.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Roe overturned: White House unveils plan to protect abortion rights