WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order that lays the groundwork for Medicaid to help women seeking abortions to travel between states to obtain access to the procedure.
The details are still being worked out, and the administration faces a challenging legal landscape because it's illegal to use federal funding to pay for abortions unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
However, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Department of Health and Human Services would invite states where abortion remains legal to apply for permission to use Medicaid funds to "provide reproductive healthcare to women who live in states where abortion is banned.”
Crossing state lines to get abortions has become an increasing issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and opened the door for new restrictions on abortion at the state level.
The National Abortion Federation said Wednesday that it's seen more women asking for help traveling to get the procedure in the month after the decision. The organization paid for 76 hotel rooms and booked 52 bus or plane trips, up from only a handful in the same time period last year.
Biden's order also calls on health care providers to comply with federal nondiscrimination laws and streamline the collection of key data and information on maternal health at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden described the court's decision on abortion as a “health care crisis,” and he said he wants to make sure “every part of the federal government does its part at this critical moment where women's health and lives are on line.”
The order came one day after Kansas voters protected the right to abortion in the conservative state, an outcome that Biden celebrated.
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Biden signed the order from the White House residence, where he continues to isolate with a rebound case of COVID-19. He participated virtually in a meeting led by Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I wish I was with you in person, quite frankly,” Biden said. “But I'm getting there.”
The new order nonetheless falls short of what many Democratic lawmakers and abortion advocacy groups have demanded of the Biden administration. One chief ask has been for Biden to declare a public health emergency on abortion, which White House officials have said would do little to free up federal resources or activate new legal authorities.
Wednesday’s order is the latest in a series of executive actions from the Biden administration since the constitutional right to an abortion was eliminated in the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June.
Separately, on Tuesday, the Justice Department sued Idaho over its statute that criminalizes abortions, with Attorney General Merrick Garland arguing that it violates federal law.
Near the end of Biden's remarks, he once again called on Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law.
“If Congress fails to act, the people of this country need to elect senators and representatives who will restore Roe and protect the right to privacy, freedom and equality.”