When President Joe Biden received word from his chief of staff in the Oval Office on Friday that the Supreme Court had decided to strip away the nationwide right to abortion, he quickly began to execute a plan his advisers had been crafting for months.
Top officials huddled in the West Wing to plot out the day and the President’s response. A draft speech, written by two of his senior advisers, was pulled up so Biden could make some last-minute tweaks. And aides began a day that had long been feared inside the White House.
“We have a long road ahead, lots of work to do,” White House counsel Dana Remus told a large group of abortion rights advocates and other stakeholders during a call convened in the hours after the ruling came down, according to a person who listened.
While the decision was deeply disappointing to Biden and his team, it did not come as a surprise. Since a draft of the opinion leaked nearly two months ago, officials have been working to weigh what options the President has to mitigate some of the ruling’s effect.
The efforts, led by the Gender Policy Council Executive Director and Co-Chair Jennifer Klein and Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, included daily phone calls, strategy sessions and regular engagement with top abortion rights groups, faith leaders, state legislators, privacy law experts and others. In total, the White House spoke to more than 200 patients, medical providers, policy and legal experts, women’s rights and reproductive rights advocates, state legislators, faith leaders, political figures and private-sector leaders, according to officials.
Aides had been aware Biden would need to respond quickly, and they developed contingency plans in case the ruling arrived while he was flying or overseas attending next week’s summits in Europe.
Ultimately, the ruling arrived while Biden was at the White House, setting in motion a response plan that officials readily acknowledge cannot restore the nationwide right to abortion the court stripped away.
“This decision must not be the final word,” Biden said in remarks from the foyer of the White House. “My administration will use all of its appropriate lawful powers. Congress must act. And your vote? You can have the final word. This is not over.”
The steps he laid out in his remarks – expanding access to medication abortion and ensuring women are able to cross state lines to obtain abortions – had been a primary focus of his team after dozens of conversations with abortion rights advocates and experts over the past two months.
Following Biden’s remarks and his decision not to take questions from members of the media, the White House did not reverse its decision to cancel the scheduled news briefing Friday afternoon with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre despite calls from journalists to do so.
On Friday, after the decision emerged, senior White House officials told abortion rights activists that the fight to protect reproductive rights would continue beyond the actions Biden announced earlier, while reiterating the importance of protests remaining peaceful.
Remus, the White House counsel, said on the call that the ruling was the result of a “deliberate, decades-long effort to upset the balance of our law,” according to a person who participated.
Remus said the ruling also put other rights into jeopardy and that Biden was “committed to fight back, both against the attack on reproductive services and the broader privacy rights.”
Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, warned the ruling could mean “women and girls will be forced to bear their rapists’ child.”
Klein, the co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council, said the administration would “do everything” to protect women who need to travel outside their states to obtain abortions.
Emmy Ruiz, the White House director of political strategy, stressed the importance of abortion rights advocates remaining in sync with the White House.
“We need to be united. We need to stay close,” she said.
And she repeated Biden’s entreaty to avoid violence.
“In a very peaceful way, we have to make sure we are owning our voices,” she said.
There have been legal debates inside the White House as it prepared for the Supreme Court decision, according to people familiar with the matter, and officials have sought guidance from the Justice Department on how far they are able to go in helping women access abortion services.
At the center of the discussions has been how far the federal government can go in helping women access abortions out of state, and whether using federal resources to fund travel across state lines could violate the Hyde Amendment, a rule preventing federal insurance dollars from going toward abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger.
Some activists have called on the White House to allow abortion providers to use federal property in states where abortion is now illegal.
But administration officials worry that both options could be legally risky and violate the rules against federal funding for abortions. White House officials have sought guidance from the Justice Department on whether paying for travel for abortions would violate the Hyde Amendment.
Biden was long a supporter of the Hyde Amendment but changed his stance during the 2020 campaign after his advisers told him it was out of step with the Democratic Party. His last budget proposals have not included it.
This story has been updated with further details.