White House vows to fight for abortion pills, patient privacy

Moves follow Texas ruling suspending US federal approval for abortion pills and state efforts to restrict travel for abortion.

Abortion US
People protest in support of access to abortion medication outside the federal courthouse in Amarillo, Texas, the US [David Erickson/The Associated Press]

The administration of President Joe Biden has vowed to continue to fight efforts to roll back abortion access in the United States, including a recent court decision to suspend federal approval of an abortion pill.

In statements issued on Wednesday, the White House also proposed new rules to make it more difficult to seize medical records, in an apparent response to states seeking to restrict abortion access beyond state lines.

The statements come on the heels of a recent ruling by a Texas judge that sought to invalidate federal approval for the abortion medication mifepristone.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “are focused on ensuring access to mifepristone, which the FDA first approved as safe and effective to end early pregnancy more than twenty years ago and which accounts for more than half of abortions in the United States”, according to Wednesday’s statements.

On Monday, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed a ruling by Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk that would have invalidated the approval of mifepristone by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the end of the week.

On Wednesday, lawyers for groups and doctors who oppose abortion challenged the DOJ’s appeal in a legal filing. It was not clear when the court will rule on the matter.

“Despite this decades-long safety record, a single court in Texas has taken the dangerous step of attempting to override FDA’s approval of medication abortion — which is used not only for abortion but also for helping women manage miscarriages,” one White House statement said.

“If this decision stands, it will put women’s health at risk and undermine FDA’s ability to ensure patients have access to safe and effective medications when they need them.”

Observers have said Kacsmaryk’s April 7 ruling likely represents the first time a lone judge has overturned an FDA approval. His decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion coalition.

In a letter responding to the ruling, hundreds of pharmaceutical executives have warned that the decision risked setting a precedent that would allow judges to revoke approvals for other medications, too.

Further confusing the situation has been a separate ruling by a federal judge in Washington state, issued just 18 minutes after Kacsmaryk’s ruling. It directed the FDA to keep mifepristone available in 17 states and Washington, DC, in response to a lawsuit filed by 18 attorneys general seeking to make the pill easier to access.

If the conflicting rulings persist, the US Supreme Court will likely need to resolve the matter.

New rule to protect privacy

In a separate statement on Wednesday, the White House said it was taking “new actions to safeguard patient privacy” to prevent law enforcement from seizing patient records in investigations related to abortions.

The move would strengthen privacy protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The White House’s proposed rule would “prohibit doctors, other health care providers and health plans” from handing over patient documents used “to investigate, sue, or prosecute an individual, a health care provider, or a loved one simply because that person sought, obtained, provided, or facilitated legal reproductive health care, including abortion”.

The move is an apparent response to efforts in some states to criminalise seeking or helping an individual seek an abortion beyond state lines.

Last week, Idaho became the first state to pass such a measure, which criminalised what legislators described as “abortion trafficking”. The law carries a penalty of two to five years in prison for anyone who assists a minor in seeking an abortion out of state or in obtaining abortion pills.

The law also allows individuals to sue doctors who perform abortions, even if they are located out of the state.

Harris is set to announce the new rule during a meeting of the White House’s Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access on Wednesday.

The proposed rule comes as the White House continues to react to the fallout from the June 2022 Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v Wade, the 1973 case that established the constitutional right to an abortion in the US.

The ruling sent the question of abortion’s legality back to state governments, prompting bans and restrictions in a number of Republican-dominated states, as well as a raft of legal challenges.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies