The Supreme Court appears poised to curtail abortion rights, and federal legislation codifying access is unlikely to make it anywhere. So some advocates for abortion access are looking to the White House to make a more forceful case — and they want the message to come from the president himself.
President Joe Biden has said he supports Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established the constitutional right to an abortion, and advocates largely approve of the steps his administration has taken on policy. But, with 50 years of abortion rights in the balance, many would like Biden to use the bully pulpit to champion the abortion rights valued by the people who worked to elect him and go on the offensive to protect them. Other groups declined to discuss the president’s position and are actively working with the White House to shape its response.
“This country follows the leader,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of the group We Testify, an organization that aims to increase the diversity of voices talking about abortion. “The starting point would be he comes and addresses the nation on the abortion crisis that is happening right now. … He needs to come out and put out a vision for full reproductive justice.”
“A statement, him using his own mouth … that is the absolute bare minimum he could do and he can’t even muster it right now,” she added.
Bracey Sherman was referring to Biden’s response or lack thereof last week to the Supreme Court oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when a majority of justices weighing Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban seemed open to either fully overturning Roe or altering its core protection: a constitutional right to an abortion until a fetus can live outside the womb, typically around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The White House did not put out an official statement about Dobbs. Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Twitter accounts were silent on the matter. When a reporter asked Biden at an event for his reaction to the justices signaling they’re on the “verge of major changes to abortion law” and whether he had plans to try to “clarify the law,” his response was brief.
“I didn’t see any of the debate today — or just the presentation today. And I support Roe v. Wade. I think it’s a rational position to take, and I continue to support it,” Biden said.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki later said that the president had “quite a busy schedule” the day of the oral arguments and that Biden would be “updated and briefed by his team.”
“I would note that the president believes that the Mississippi law blatantly violates women’s constitutional rights to safe and legal abortions. … As we’ve outlined before and he’s mentioned before, he’s committed to working with Congress to codify the constitutional right,” Psaki told reporters.
Biden’s policy positions on abortion have evolved over his time in public service. He is an observant Catholic, and the church is opposed to abortion. When he joined the Senate in 1973, as the court decided Roe, Biden voted for a failed constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn the decision. In a Washingtonian magazine interview at the time, he said: “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
In a 2007 book, Biden said he had arrived at a “middle-of-the-road position on abortion” and intended to stay there. The next year, he described Roe as “close to a consensus that can exist in a society as heterogeneous as ours.” As vice president during the Obama administration, he said the government does not have the “right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their own body.”
In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, under fire from abortion-rights advocates who said his positions were no longer in line with his party’s base, Biden reversed long-held support for a congressional ban on using federal dollars to pay for abortion care known as the Hyde Amendment, which complicates access for individuals who use the government’s Medicaid health insurance program, often people who are low-income or living with disabilities. In the first White House briefing of Biden’s administration, when Psaki was asked about the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which requires foreign organizations to certify they will not promote abortion as a condition for receiving U.S. aid for reproductive health care, she responded that he is “a devout Catholic.” Psaki continued: “He started his day attending church with his family this morning. But I don’t have anything more for you on that.”
Biden went on to drop the Hyde Amendment from his budget proposal. During his first weeks in office, he also rescinded the Mexico City Policy. In October, his administration reversed a Trump-era regulation that barred health care providers receiving federal funds for family planning under the Title X program from mentioning abortion care to patients as an option.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed releasing a document that said politicians like Biden who support abortion access should be denied communion, Biden met with Pope Francis, whom he said called him a “good Catholic.” The bishops ultimately stopped short of naming Biden or any other specific public official.
Biden has shown a personal discomfort with discussing abortion in stark terms, preferring descriptions such as “women’s access to health care” or “women’s access to constitutional rights,” “Roe” or “reproductive care.” It was 224 days into his administration before he used the word “abortion” in written statements related to a restrictive six-week abortion ban in Texas known as Senate Bill 8, according to a count kept by Bracey Sherman. To her knowledge, Biden has never said the word in oral remarks.
“Can you imagine if someone were talking about the full-on assault on voting rights but never used the word vote? How do you talk about something and refuse to use the word that it is?” Bracey Sherman asked.
Activists like Bracey Sherman worry that Biden’s reticence on abortion rights undermines efforts to reduce the stigma for people who have had abortions. It could also frustrate the Democratic Party’s efforts to make the 2022 midterm elections a referendum on Republican efforts to pass restrictive abortion laws.
The White House declined to comment on Biden’s next steps or personal thoughts about abortion.
Twenty-one states are “certain” to ban abortion if Roe is overturned because they have laws or state constitutional amendments already in place, and five more are “likely” to given their political control and history introducing restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute. States such as Arizona, Georgia and Ohio that will have competitive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races next year either banned abortion before Roe was decided or have six-week bans on the books that were blocked by the courts. Democratic candidates in those places were more direct after Dobbs: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democratic candidate in the Ohio governor’s race, appeared at a rally after the arguments with an abortion provider. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly tweeted his opposition to the Mississippi law. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock reiterated that he has “always been a pro-choice pastor.”
Recent polling in key states by the Democratic-aligned Planned Parenthood Action Fund, EMILY’s List and American Bridge 21st Century, which all support abortion rights, showed that the Texas law in particular is unpopular with potential Democratic and politically ambivalent voters. It also showed a marked increase in support for Roe — from 58 percent to 87 percent — after its meaning was described to voters, suggesting using “Roe” as a stand-in for “abortion” is not the clearest electoral message.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund declined to comment for this story, but national campaigns director Jenny Lawson told The 19th when poll numbers were released that the biggest takeaway “is that elected officials should be unapologetic about protecting and championing abortion access.”
Destiny Lopez, the co-president of the abortion-rights group All* Above All, said regarding Biden that she has “seen progress, particularly on the policy side, and there is hopefully more to come on the bully pulpit side.”
“I want to hear more from the president beyond euphemisms, he’s going to have a couple good opportunities coming up with the State of the Union, and the Roe anniversary, to show he supports people who have abortions in this country, and to lead the party in the right direction on this and embolden Congress and state Democratic leaders,” Lopez said.
Biden mentioned “protecting women’s health” in his first joint address to Congress in April but not abortion rights specifically. A joint statement with Harris on the Roe anniversary in January did not use the word abortion.
Gretchen Borchelt, the vice president of reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, lauded the Biden administration’s response to SB 8 as “forceful and compelling” and said the Justice Department attorney who argued against Mississippi’s law last week was “strong, powerful and calm.” What she wants now is a roadmap of the Biden administration’s “whole-of-government response,” she said.
“What I really want to see and hear from them is their plan beyond this immediate crisis. What is the vision for ensuring that abortion access is guaranteed? How are they going to use all the levers of government to ensure that whether or not Roe falls, people can get the abortions they need?” she said.