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Justice Dept. announces task force to fight overreach on abortion bans

Effort is latest Biden administration response to Supreme Court ruling last month that overturned Roe v. Wade

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

The Justice Department is launching a “reproductive rights task force” to marshal federal legal resources aimed at preventing overreach from state and local governments seeking to impose new bans on abortion access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, officials said Tuesday.

Justice officials said the move should consolidate work that was underway in the months leading up to the high court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which struck down federal safeguards for abortion that had stood for five decades.

The task force, led by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, will be charged with monitoring and evaluating state and local legislation and weighing legal action against states that ban abortion medication or attempt to block a pregnant person from traveling out of state for an abortion, among other measures. The effort will include dedicated staff and representatives from a wide swath of the Justice Department, including the civil division, U.S. attorneys’ offices, the civil rights division, the Office of Legal Counsel, the Office of Access to Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General.

“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,” Gupta said in a statement. “The Justice Department is committed to protecting access to reproductive services.”

Abortion is now banned is these states. See where the laws have changed.

Some Democratic activists and lawmakers have expressed frustration over the White House’s response to changes in abortion law in recent weeks, urging the Biden administration to push the bounds of what it believes it can do in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. In response, President Biden delivered a fiery speech Friday as he signed an executive order asking his administration to pursue an array of measures aimed at bolstering abortion rights.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced one such measure included in Biden’s directive. The agency updated guidance reminding doctors that they must terminate a pregnancy if doing so is necessary to stabilize a patient in an emergency medical situation.

Similar to the announcement of the Justice Department task force, the HHS memo doesn’t include new policy but rather seeks to cut through the confusion providers are facing on the ground in states where abortions are newly restricted. Senior U.S. health officials reiterated their belief that federal law supersedes state abortion bans, protecting clinicians’ judgment when administering treatment during an emergency.

In a statement, Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the new Justice Department task force “a meaningful step in providing a framework for enforcing federal protection for those helping patients navigate access to abortion, and we look forward to seeing its work quickly take shape.”

Since the Supreme Court ruling, she said, she has traveled to several states to discussed the impact of the decision.

Gretchen Whitmer's abortion fight -- from the porch with her daughters

Justice officials said they have been working for months to prepare for the Supreme Court’s decision and an expected flurry of legislation in some states to further restrict abortion, ban doctors from advising patients about the procedure or helping them access it, and prohibit pregnant people in states that outlaw abortion from receiving abortion medication in the mail or traveling across state lines to terminate a pregnancy.

Antiabortion groups hit back against the Justice Department’s effort, arguing that the federal government shouldn’t attempt to block states’ efforts.

“It can’t override federalism. It can’t override the constitution,” said Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, an antiabortion law firm and advocacy group. “It’s basically make-work.”

Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students For Life of America, called the task force a “misuse of our federal resources to prioritize abortion.”

Since the court’s ruling, more than a dozen states have moved to ban or severely restrict abortions, according to The Washington Post’s tracker. Some of those efforts have been at least temporarily blocked by lawsuits from abortion rights groups. The legal arguments vary, though they often contend that the state constitution protects a patient’s right to obtain an abortion.

Some Republican-led states also have moved to ban the practice of medicine around abortion pills, such as blocking them from being shipped or prescribed during telehealth visits — setting up likely litigation in the courts. The Food and Drug Administration approved the medication in 2000, saying the drugs were safe and effective for use in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Some experts say that there’s a strong argument that the FDA approval of a drug preempts state action — and that new restrictions in states where abortion is being curtailed or outlawed wouldn’t hold up in federal courts.

Attorney General Merrick Garland signaled last month that the Justice Department would engage in the fight to protect those seeking legal means to abortion access, calling the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs a “devastating blow to reproductive freedom.”

Justice officials said the new task force would respond to a provision in Biden’s executive order to encourage private attorneys and law firms to provide pro bono services for patients and health-care providers. The agency also will gather online resources, including legal briefs, and provide technical assistance to congressional lawmakers around legislative efforts to codify abortion protections.

Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which served as the lead counsel for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, welcomed the Justice Department’s efforts, saying advocacy groups will need additional legal firepower. She said her organization was already involved in more than three dozen lawsuits and filed several more after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We’re seeing the intimidation already in states that are making people afraid to share information about legal abortion services in other states,” Northup said. “It is a really frightening time.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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