President Joe Biden said the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Friday to overturn the constitutional right to abortion was a "sad day" that will deny women in America control of their own destiny.
"It's a sad day for the court and the country," Biden said in a White House speech.
By overturning the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that protected abortion rights, he said, "let’s be very clear the health and life of women in this nation are now at risk."
Roe v. Wade, he said, "reaffirmed basic principles of equality, that women have the power to control their own destiny."
Biden said there were few things he could do by executive order, and called on Congress to restore abortion rights with a federal law, and voters to elect lawmakers and state leaders who would protect those rights.
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Senior female White House officials including domestic policy chief Susan Rice, gender policy council head Jen Klein, communications adviser Kate Bedingfield stood by while Biden spoke.
The court on Friday took the dramatic step of overturning the ruling that recognized a woman's constitutional right to an abortion and legalized it nationwide, handing a momentous victory to Republicans and religious conservatives who want to limit or ban the procedure.
The court ruling was issued just after 10 a.m. ET and left many White House aides scrambling to react because they had expected it to drop next week. Biden's speech was announced about an hour later.
"We were preparing for this to land next week," a White House source said. Another source told Reuters "no one knew when this would land but the preparations for the ruling to drop have been under way."
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will work "tirelessly" to protect and advance reproductive freedom.
"Today's decision does not eliminate the ability of states to keep abortion legal within their borders. And the Constitution continues to restrict states' authority to ban reproductive services provided outside their borders."
Biden, a Democrat and a lifelong Catholic, was opposed to Roe in the early days of his career and only later embraced abortion rights. He made forceful comments after a leaked draft opinion was revealed in May but up to that point he had never said the word "abortion" aloud as president.
In May, many women's rights advocates expressed deep frustration with the White House and Democrats in general after the draft ruling was leaked, criticizing a lack of urgency and preparation. read more
Over the past several weeks, the White House had been preparing its response and actions it can take in meetings with several stakeholders, including abortion rights activists, privacy and constitutional experts.