President Joe Biden announced a new rule that will prohibit the disclosure of information about patients’ reproductive healthcare needs. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

Individuals seeking abortions may breathe a little easier.

This week, President Joe Biden announced a new rule – the HIPAA Privacy Rule to Support Reproductive Health Care Privacy – that will prohibit the disclosure of information about patients’ reproductive healthcare needs, while also offering protections to patients, doctors and families involved in finding and securing such care.

Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the Office for Civil Rights, further explained in a press conference that the rule prevents “those regulated by HIPAA … from using or disclosing a person’s protected health information” related to seeking out lawful reproductive health care, including an abortion. 

The point of the rule, Rainer added, is to ensure that “no one [has] to live in fear that their conversations with their doctor – or that their medical claims data – might be used to target or track them for seeking lawful reproductive health care.”

Since the repeal of Roe v. Wade in 2022, abortions have increased significantly in most states where they are legal – but are most prominently in states that border those with bans, according to a 2023 study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for reproductive rights. But in states where abortion restrictions are the most severe – such as Texas – lawmakers are seeking to penalize those who travel out-of-state in pursuit of reproductive care.

While some states have responded with their own policies — including New York, which allows in-state medical providers to send abortion pills to patients in states where access is restricted — Biden’s move offers federal-level protections.

It’s a life-saving prospect, experts say. A study published last year found that most OB-GYNs in the U.S. think the loss of federal abortion protections directly resulted in increased pregnant mortality rates. A majority of reproductive healthcare workers also say the Dobbs decision that repealed Roe v. Wade widened the gap in care between white patients and patients of color, while additionally causing an overall decline in the quality of care offered in more restrictive states.

Yet fear of retribution still has a significant number of patients weighing the pros and cons – and risks – of seeking care, or abortions, at all. “Many Americans are scared their private medical information will be being shared, misused, and disclosed without permission,” U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release on the decision. “This has a chilling effect on women visiting a doctor, picking up a prescription from a pharmacy, or taking other necessary actions to support their health.” 

Which is why activists and progressive lawmakers are celebrating the Biden administration’s latest step. Becerra added: “With reproductive health under attack by some lawmakers, these protections are more important than ever.”