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Lawmakers and advocates are pushing President Biden to declare a national health emergency to increase financial resources and flexibility in states that continue to allow abortion access following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The fundamental right to control your body and future has been ripped away from American women,” Assistant Speaker of the House Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) told The Early. “Declaring an emergency is an immediate step to help patients access the care they need.”

Supporters say time is critical because the remaining abortion clinics are seeing a massive increase in demand that is going to be difficult to meet.

“They are doing everything they can,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said of an abortion clinic treating women in the northern parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. “But they are severely resource constrained in terms of the providers that they have, in terms of the physical facilities that they have, in terms of the financial resources they need to try to expand access to care, which they desperately want to do.” 

“This would be another way for the full legal authority of the federal government to be brought into play as we try to protect women's health,” Smith said in an interview on Washington Post Live this week. 

A Planned Parenthood clinic 13 miles over the southern Illinois border is now treating women throughout the Midwest. It expects 14,000 additional patients this year and is already seeing a 52 percent increase for abortions after 12 weeks because it is taking longer to get to a clinic, according to Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, vice president of strategy and communications at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. 

“We've been really clear that since before the decision we needed the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency to free up resources,” Lee-Gilmore said.

Because of the so-called Hyde amendment, federal funding cannot pay for an abortion, but advocates said federal funding freed up by an emergency declaration could pay for travel expenses for patients, a cost often incurred by clinics. 

The administration has been examining the legality and the efficacy of declaring a health emergency, people familiar with the matter said, including aspects that could enable registered nurses to perform abortion, enable doctors to practice outside their geographical jurisdiction, and allow patients into other states' Medicaid programs.

Reached for comment, a White House official pointed to Becerra's remarks on Tuesday that all options remained on the table.

Other options include ensuring access to abortion pills and the freedom to travel for health care. Our colleagues Caroline Kitchener and Devlin Barrett report that “[s]everal national antiabortion groups and their allies in Republican-led state legislatures are advancing plans to stop people in states where abortion is banned from seeking the procedure elsewhere, according to people involved in the discussions.”

‘The juice isn’t worth the squeeze'

Some public health experts say Biden could take other steps that would be more effective than declaring a public health emergency.

“If the White House were to declare a public health emergency in response to a Supreme Court decision, it’s very possible that the next incumbent of the Oval Office would declare an emergency for the life of fetuses,” Gostin said. “And that’s exactly the kind of politicization of public health that we really need to avoid.”

Declaring a public health emergency might have symbolic importance, but it would have little tangible impact, Gostin argued.

The federal government doesn’t have the power to let doctors perform abortions in states in which they’re not licensed, for instance. If blue states want to take such steps, they can do so on their own, he said. And the administration could authorize Medicare and Medicaid to pay for travel to other states to seek abortions without an emergency declaration.