The White House on Wednesday proposed a new federal rule to limit how law enforcement and state officials collect medical records if they investigate women who flee their home states to seek abortions elsewhere.
The proposal, prompted by a string of blows to abortion access across the country, follows a federal judge’s ruling on Friday that threatens to pull the most commonly used abortion pill, mifepristone, off the market.
The White House’s proposed rule would prohibit healthcare organizations from sharing personal medical records with authorities for investigations related to reproductive care in states where a woman legally obtained an abortion. While medical records are protected by federal privacy laws, health providers and insurers can be compelled to turn over medical records with a court order.
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Doctors around the country have voiced concerns about protecting that medical information from law enforcement officials, said Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the office of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which proposed the rule change.
“We’ve had many conversations with providers, major medical associations and patient advocates about what they’re seeing on the ground and how the federal government can be helpful in ensuring medical records are kept private,” she said in a statement.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion last year, some women living in a stretch of Southern and Midwestern states that have largely outlawed abortion now travel hours to other states to get abortions legally.
Vice President Kamala Harris planned to discuss the proposed rule at a meeting on Wednesday with President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, which will include Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, according to two senior White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the meeting. The public can weigh in on the proposed rule for the next 60 days.
The Cabinet will also strategize responses to statewide bans on abortion and Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s order to pull the abortion pill mifepristone off the market, which threatens to upend abortion access for the entire country by Friday if another court doesn’t step in. The Justice Department appealed the ruling on Monday.
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For months, the White House has struggled to counter the abortion restrictions Republican-led states have rolled out since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to the medical procedure last June.
Many abortion clinics, some offering medication-only abortions, have relocated to Democratic-leaning states, preserving some sort of access for millions of women around the country. Now, the Biden administration is staring down a challenge to abortion access that could alter how women get abortions nationwide.
Kacsmaryk’s decision would revoke the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, one of two drugs used in what is considered the most effective and safest way to carry out a medication abortion. There is no precedent for a lone judge to overrule the FDA’s medical decisions, and pharmaceutical executives said Monday they fear the ruling could jeopardize the approval of vaccines and other medications.
A competing ruling by a federal judge in Spokane, Washington, issued on the same day directed federal officials not to hinder access to the drug in at least 17 states where Democrats sued to keep the drug’s availability intact. The issue is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court.