Attorney General Merrick Garland headlined a White House event Friday bringing together pro bono lawyers, bar associations and public interest groups to discuss how best to offer legal services and protections for women seeking abortions.
The effort is part of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden earlier this month aimed at protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to the procedure.
Lawyers will work to “encourage robust legal representation of those seeking reproductive care services,” the White House said in announcing the event. Garland was accompanied by White House counsel Stuart Delery and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. A public schedule for second gentleman Doug Emhoff, himself a lawyer, showed he was expected to join the event later.
“It has now been 35 days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe and Casey, eliminating a fundamental constitutional right that had been essential to the freedom and equality of women in the United States for half a century,” Garland said. “On that day, I know we all feared what was to come. And what has happened in the days since has confirmed those fears.”
Among the issues that the White House said would be discussed were travel for abortions, what to do when women are denied the procedure and criminalization of the practice.
Biden has said he cannot, on his own, restore access to abortion nationwide. He has called on voters to elect to Congress this fall a sufficient number of Democrats who could then vote to codify the rights of Roe v. Wade. But his administration has come under significant pressure from advocacy groups to use his executive powers, including declaring a public health emergency on abortion.
“The impact of the decision on the live as a people across our country has been immediate, wide-ranging and devastating,” Garland said. “Over the past month, states across our nation have taken steps to impose abortion bans and other restrictions on access. In states with the most severe restrictions. There is no longer a single clinic providing abortions.”
Delery said the session would allow the lawyers to “think seriously” about how they could bring “our unique tools to bear in pursuit of reproductive freedom” in the wake of the high court's ruling in the Mississippi abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“Before we can fight, we must listen — listen to those who have worked closely with women who have suffered and will suffer because of the Dobbs decision, listen to the medical professionals who provide reproductive care at great personal and professional lives, and listen to the lawyers who’ve already been on the front lines of this battle for decades," he said.
Also Friday, Biden said he would nominate to a federal appeals court the abortion rights lawyer who argued unsuccessfully for the preservation of Roe at the Supreme Court.
Julie Rikelman, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, is Biden’s choice to fill a seat on the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Harvard-educated Rikelman is a native of Kyiv, Ukraine, from which she emigrated with her family in 1979.
In her presentation at the high court in December, Rikelman told the justices that “eliminating or reducing the right to abortion will propel women backwards. Two generations have now relied on this right, and one out of every four women makes the decision to end a pregnancy.”
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