The Justice Department is launching a Reproductive Rights Task Force to prevent state and local governments from overreach if they impose new abortion bans.
Department officials announced Tuesday that the task force formalizes an existing work group and recent efforts to protect access to reproductive health care considering the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The task force will monitor state and local legislation and consider legal action against states that ban abortion medication, out-of-state travel for an abortion, and other measures that try to prevent reproductive health services that are authorized by federal law.
“The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision is a devastating blow to reproductive freedom in the United States,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the task force chair, said in a statement.
“The Court abandoned 50 years of precedent and took away the constitutional right to abortion, preventing women all over the country from being able to make critical decisions about our bodies, our health, and our futures,” she said. “The Justice Department is committed to protecting access to reproductive services.”
The task force includes representatives from the Justice Department’s civil division, civil rights division, U.S. attorneys’ offices, Office of the Solicitor General, Office for Access to Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, Office of Legal Policy, Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of the Associate Attorney General, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, and Office of the Attorney General.
The task force is charged with coordinating federal government responses, including proactive and defensive legal action, the department said. Task force members will work with agencies across the federal government to support their work on issues related to reproductive rights and access to reproductive health care.
The Justice Department will also continue to work with external groups, such as reproductive services providers, advocates, and state attorneys general offices. It will also work with the Office of Counsel to the President to hold a meeting with private pro bono attorneys, bar associations, and public interest groups to encourage lawyers to represent patients, providers, and others in reproductive health services cases.
“Recognizing that the best way to protect reproductive freedom is through congressional action, the Task Force will also coordinate providing technical assistance to Congress in connection with federal legislation to codify reproductive rights and ensure access to comprehensive reproductive services,” the department wrote. “It will also coordinate the provision of technical assistance concerning federal constitutional protections to states seeking to afford legal protection to out-of-state patients and providers who offer legal reproductive healthcare.”
The announcement comes as some activists and lawmakers have expressed frustration about the White House’s response to changes in abortion law in recent weeks, according to The Washington Post. They’ve called on the Biden administration to do more in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to direct his administration to pursue a variety of measures aimed at protecting abortion access, reproductive health care services, and patient privacy.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to remind hospitals of their duty to comply with the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which stands “irrespective of any state laws or mandates that apply to specific procedures.” The law requires health care personnel to provide medical screening and stabilizing treatment to patients in emergency medical situations. In the case of pregnancy, emergencies may include ectopic pregnancy, complications of pregnancy loss, or severe hypertensive disorders. Doctors must terminate a pregnancy if it’s necessary to stabilize the patient.
“When a state law prohibits abortion and does not include an exception for the life and health of the pregnant person — or draws the exception more narrowly than EMTALA’s emergency medical condition definition — that state law is preempted,” the department wrote.
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe, more than a dozen states have moved to ban or severely restrict abortions, according to a state tracker by the Post. Some of the laws have been temporarily blocked by courts in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Utah.
At the same time, some Republican-led states have moved to ban other reproductive health care services, such as abortion medication and telehealth visits, the newspaper reported. The FDA approved mifepristone in 2000, saying the pill is safe and effective for use during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
The Justice Department task force said it will monitor legislation that seeks to ban mifepristone, as well as block people’s ability to inform each other about reproductive care available across the country.
“We’re seeing the intimidation already in states that are making people afraid to share information about legal abortion services in other states,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the newspaper.
The center served as the legal counsel for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in the case that overturned Roe. Northup said the group is already involved in more than three dozen lawsuits and has filed several more since the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“It is a really frightening time,” she said.
U.S. Department of Justice: “Justice Department Announces Reproductive Rights Task Force.”
The Washington Post: “Justice Dept. announces task force to fight overreach on abortion bans.”
White House: “FACT SHEET: President Biden to Sign Executive Order Protecting Access to Reproductive Health Care Services.”
Department of Health and Human Services: “Reinforcement of EMTALA Obligations specific to Patients who are Pregnant or are Experiencing Pregnancy Loss.”
The Washington Post: “Abortion is now banned in these states. See where laws have changed.’