Will Joe Biden get credit for finally taking action on abortion rights?

Will Joe Biden get credit for finally taking action on abortion rights?
President Joe Biden (Shutterstock).

The president is going to sign an executive order today to shore up what’s left of the federal protection of abortion rights shortly after the Supreme Court struck down the ruling, Roe, that created them.

The order “will attempt to safeguard access to abortion medication and emergency contraception, protect patient privacy and bolster legal options for those seeking access to such services,” according to the Post’s Matt Viser. Here are some of the details of the order:

1. It directs the US Department of Health and Human Services secretary “to submit a report within 30 days that would address many of those items.” The secretary “is also charged with finding ways to increase public outreach so that those seeking reproductive health-care services, including abortion, know how to access them.”

READ MORE: Anti-abortion laws could create a dangerous shortage of badly needed maternal care: report

2. It directs the attorney general and the White House counsel “to convene private pro bono attorneys, bar associations and public interest organizations to encourage legal representation for those seeking or offering reproductive health services.”

3. It “attempts to address patient privacy.” It asks the Federal Trade Commission to protect privacy “when patients seek information about reproductive health services.” HHS will “consider additional actions to prevent information about patients from being disclosed.”

4. It will establish “an interagency Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access” that will “coordinate on other potential policies.”

President’s limited capital

READ MORE: President Joe Biden to announce executive action to protect abortion rights in Friday speech

When I heard the news, I thought of Noah Berlatsky.

Noah doesn’t write about abortion issues for the Editorial Board. He writes about political economy. In his latest, he documented ways Biden has reduced US military involvement around the world. Even so, Noah said, his most strident antiwar critics are not crediting him.

That’s bad for antiwar activism, Noah said.

“Biden has ramped down conflict, but leading antiwar voices have continued to attack him on the issue. Future presidents may reasonably conclude that the antiwar lobby is fickle, unreasonable and confused – that there’s not much point in catering to them.”


That dynamic applies to abortion rights.

If Biden hears the legitimate complaints of his critics – who have for two weeks been urging him “to at least try to fight back against abortion rights restrictions, rather than second-guessing them before making an attempt,” per the Post – then acts on them, he’d better get credit. Otherwise, he’s wasted limited political capital.

Otherwise, future complaints risk falling on deaf ears.

Virtuous cycle of demand and supply

READ MORE: Watch: Robert Reich rips Republicans over their war on civil rights

This reciprocity is relevant to my recent concern about solidarity on the broad left. Indeed, it serves as a guardrail of sorts that restrains ideological camps. Between these guardrails the broad left’s liberals and progressives – and moderates and Marxists – can argue and fight without, in the process, destroying the coalition of the broad left that must remain united for the purpose of winning midterm elections.

These guardrails, when honored and kept, can define which reactions to Biden’s EO are legitimate and not – that is, which ones Biden (and the rest of us) should listen to. A legit complaint: “This is good. We need more. We appreciate the president hearing our concerns. But there’s more work to do.” That recognizes what’s been done. It assesses its merits critically. And it demands more.

An illegitimate reaction: “What took you so long?” Or: “Too late. We’re doomed.” Or: “Again, Democrats bring a knife to a gunfight.” Such a reaction does not recognize what’s done. It does not assess the merits critically, only cynically and myopically. It assesses what hasn’t been done according to a shifting set of standards and values that even Biden’s critics won’t commit to. Why would Biden, or any president, commit to them knowing the goalpost will be moved?

One of these reactions can create conditions from which arises a virtuous cycle of demand and supply. Critics make a demand. The Biden supplies. Critics demand more. Biden supplies more. And so on. That’s a healthy, though rather idealized, democratic process.


The other is a vicious cycle that really could lead to our doom.

Throwing noodles

Is Biden’s executive order enough? It’s hard to say.

The specifics are hard to discern. If the president flexes the full might of his administration to reach people in need, in the way the federal government responds to destruction and pain caused by tornadoes and hurricanes, then yes, it might be. Time will tell.

READ MORE: How the Supreme Court's worst ruling, Dred Scott, relates to the reversal of Roe

But like most executive orders, it can do a little, but that’s it.

Fact is, anything Biden does without the Congress is piecemeal at best. His critics should concede that fact. Yes, something is better than nothing. Something isn’t everything that’s needed, however.

If the broad left wants a full approach to federal protection of the rights to privacy, life and liberty, then they should demand that Biden and the Democratic leadership spell out a short-term way to do it.

By codifying Roe.

READ MORE: To see Roe as law, the left must stick together

The Democrats should say that there’s a bill sitting in the Senate, already passed by the House, that turns Roe into a statute. The Democrats should say that nothing’s guaranteed, but with more Democrats in the Senate, they have a good chance of reforming the Senate rule (the filibuster) currently preventing Roe from being law.

Right now, Biden’s critics are throwing spaghetti against the wall. They are so desperate they’ll take anything that sticks. This is understandable. We’re all panicking in our own ways. But the most visible strategy, the most direct, is in front of them. If that fails (and yes, the Democrats could fail), we can go back to throwing noodles.

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