WASHINGTON, July 8 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said the Supreme Court decision overturning the right to an abortion was an exercise in “raw political power” and signed an executive order on Friday to help protect access to services to terminate pregnancies.

Biden, a Democrat, has been under pressure from his own party to take action after the landmark decision last month to overturn Roe v Wade, which upended roughly 50 years of protections for women’s reproductive rights.

The president’s powers are constrained because U.S. states can make laws restricting abortion and access to medication, and the executive order is expected to have a limited impact.

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“What we’re witnessing wasn’t a constitutional judgment, it was an exercise in raw political power,” Biden told reporters at the White House after quoting heavily from the dissenting opinion in the ruling.

“We cannot allow an out of control Supreme Court, working in conjunction with extremist elements of the Republican party, to take away freedoms and our personal autonomy,” he said.

The White House is not publicly entertaining the idea of reforming the court itself or expanding the nine-member panel, an option pushed by Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Representative Pramila Jayapal.

In Friday’s speech, Biden instead laid out how abortion rights could be secured by voters if they elected more pro-choice senators, and noted the Supreme Court majority opinion referred to women’s “political power.”

“I don’t think the court, or for that matter Republicans … have a clue about the power of American women,” he said, adding he believed women would turn out in record numbers in November’s election to restore women’s rights.

He also cited recent reports that a 10-year-old girl in Ohio was forced to travel to Indiana to have an abortion after she was raped.

“Imagine being a little girl. Just imagine being a little girl, 10 years old. Does anyone believe that?,” he said.

In June, Biden condemned the court’s ruling and proposed that U.S. senators remove a legislative roadblock by temporarily lifting the Senate “filibuster” to restore abortion rights. The suggestion was shot down by aides to key Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. read more

Earlier in June, sources told Reuters the White House was unlikely to take the bold steps on abortion access that Democratic lawmakers have called for, such as court reform or offering reproductive services on federal lands. read more

On Friday, Biden directed the Health and Human Services Department to take action to protect and expand access to “medication abortion” approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the White House said.

Experts have said a pill used to terminate early pregnancies is unlikely to become available without a prescription for years. States that already restrict the medication would not be affected by the presidential order.

He also directed the department to ensure women have access to emergency medical care, family planning services, and contraception, including intrauterine devices (IUDs).

In the executive order, Biden also directed his attorney general and White House counsel to convene pro bono attorneys and other organizations to provide legal counsel for patients seeking an abortion as well as abortion providers.

“Such representation could include protecting the right to travel out of state to seek medical care,” the White House said in a statement.

The Supreme Court’s ruling restored states’ ability to ban abortion. As a result, women with unwanted pregnancies face the choice of traveling to another state where the procedure remains legal and available, buying abortion pills online, or having a potentially dangerous illegal abortion.

The issue may help drive Democrats to the polls in the November midterm elections, when Republicans have a chance of taking control of Congress. Democrats have a slim majority in the House of Representatives and control the evenly divided Senate through Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.

Biden’s executive order also aims to protect patients’ privacy and ensuring safety for mobile abortion clinics at state borders, and directs the establishment of a task force to coordinate the administration’s response on reproductive health care access, the White House said.

The Supreme Court ruling is expected to have a disproportionate impact on Black women and other women of color, who have traditionally faced overwhelming costs and logistical obstacles in obtaining reproductive healthcare, experts said. [nL1N2YE19P]

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Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Heather Timmons and Deepa Babington

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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