US President Joe Biden said Friday (Saturday NZT) he would try to preserve access to abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and he called on Americans to elect more Democrats who would safeguard rights upended by the court's decision. "This is not over," he declared.
"Let's be very clear, the health and life of women across this nation are now at risk," he said from the White House on what he called "a sad day for the court and the country".
Biden added that "the court has done what it's never done before — expressly taking away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans".
Republicans and conservative leaders celebrated the culmination of a decades-long campaign to undo the nationwide legalisation of abortion that began with Roe v Wade in 1973.
"Millions of Americans have spent half a century praying, marching and working toward today's historic victories for the rule of law and for innocent life," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an architect of efforts to tilt the Supreme Court to the right.
Although Biden has previously expressed conflicted feelings about abortion, he delivered a forceful defence Friday. Noting that Republican-controlled states now had a clear path to ban abortion even in cases of incest or rape, he said "it just stuns me".
The justices of the US Supreme Court. Photo / AP
Biden warned that other legal precedents ensuring same-sex marriage and access to birth control could also be at risk.
"This is an extreme and dangerous path this court is taking us on," he said.
The overturning of Roe v Wade was not unexpected — a draft of the decision leaked nearly two months ago — but it still reverberated throughout Washington in what has suddenly become a new era in the country's battle over abortion.
The White House and the Justice Department said they would look for ways to blunt the impact of the ruling, and Biden said his administration would try to ensure that abortion medication is available as widely as possible and women aren't prevented from travelling across state lines to end pregnancies.
However, no executive actions were announced Friday, and Biden conceded that his options were limited. White House officials tried to rally allies in a virtual meeting after the president spoke.
"We need to stay united," said Emmy Ruiz, the director of political strategy and outreach. "We know that the task ahead is incredibly daunting. But we're prepared to meet the moment."
Abortion-rights and anti-abortion protesters face off in front of the US Supreme Court. Photo / AP
Protesters converged on the Supreme Court, where a crowd of abortion-rights supporters quickly swelled to the hundreds. One chanted into a bullhorn, "legal abortion on demand" and "this decision must not stand". Some shouted "the Supreme Court is illegitimate".
"It's a painful day for those of us who support women's rights," said Laura Free, an Ithaca, New York, resident and women's rights historian who came to Washington to do research. When she learned of the decision, she said, "I had to come here."
A competing faction demonstrated in favour of the ruling, holding signs saying "the future is anti-abortion″ and "dismember Roe".
Garrett Bess, with Heritage Action for America, a lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said his organisation would be working in states to continue efforts to limit abortion.
"This has been a long time coming," he said.
Biden and other Democrats hope to use outrage over the court decision to rally voters in November's midterm elections. Although nationwide legislation ensuring access to abortion appears out of reach, more Democratic victories at the state level could limit Republican efforts to ban the practice.
"Congress must act, and with your vote, you can act," Biden said. "You can have the final word."
Protesters gather outside the US Supreme Court following the decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Photo / AP
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the court's ruling "is outrageous and heart-wrenching" and fulfills the Republican Party's "dark and extreme goal of ripping away women's right to make their own reproductive health decisions".
In a statement, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department "will work tirelessly to protect and advance reproductive freedom." He said that in addition to protecting providers and those seeking abortions in states where it remains legal, "we stand ready to work with other arms of the federal government that seek to use their lawful authorities to protect and preserve access to reproductive care."
He also noted that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of mifepristone, a drug used to end pregnancies.
"States may not ban mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA's expert judgment about its safety and efficacy," Garland said.
Lawrence Gostin, who runs the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law, said he was disappointed that the president did not announce more concrete steps.
"He was very ambiguous about what he planned to do," he said. "There was no really decisive, strategic plan of action that the administration was going to take."
Gostin said he's discussed a variety of options with administration officials but believes they are "gun-shy" given the potential for legal challenges that could lead to more roadblocks from a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives.
Some of Gostin's suggestions included having Medicaid cover the cost of travelling across state lines to end pregnancies, as well as expanding access to abortion medication that can be delivered by mail.
The Reverend John Dorhauer, the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, drove from Cleveland to Washington to attend one meeting earlier this month. Another virtual meeting was held this week, featuring Vice President Kamala Harris.
"It was rather impressive to see the commitment the White House and the vice president's office has had to gather advocates from around the country," Dorhauer said.
But even before the ruling, there were concerns that the administration was not ready.
Dr Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said she expects "a true health crisis".
"I think that we should have been preparing for far longer than we have been," McNicholas said. "Do I think that they recognise that this a problem? Yes. Do I think that they're prepared in this moment? No."
- By Chris Megerian, Zeke Miller and Fatima Hussein, AP