Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday night urged Americans to stand up in the fight for abortion rights, delivering the Biden administration’s most forceful public statements since Politico published a leaked draft opinion that shows the majority of Supreme Court justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion access.
“We have been on the front lines of this fight for many years, all of us in this together, and now we enter a new phase. There is nothing hypothetical about this moment,” Harris said at the annual gala for Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. “Women’s issues are America’s issues, and democracies cannot be strong if the rights of women are under attack. So to all here I say, let us fight for our country and for the principles upon which it was founded, and let us fight with everything we have got.”
The leaked Supreme Court opinion became the focal point of the night and a rallying cry for politicians and organizers to get out the vote in the November midterms.
“Right now it is our turn to use every lesson we’ve learned, every relationship we’ve built, and raise every dollar we can to ensure that we vote out every single person out of office who does not stand with protecting abortion access,” said Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List, who worked for Harris during her presidential campaign in 2019.
Both Harris and Butler are the first women of color to hold their respective positions. In her speech, Butler emphasized that Emily’s List has a responsibility to help elect more Black women to office, to represent who she called “the most loyal Democratic voters in this party.”
Stacey Abrams is among the candidates the group is backing this year and, if successful in her bid to lead Georgia, would be the first Black woman to be governor of any state. At the event, she tied the pending abortion decision to a broader struggle for civil rights.
“While abortion rights are at the center of this damned opinion, this is about our civil rights and our human rights. This is about whether this is a nation that will protect who we are,” Abrams said. “I know that for the LGBTQIA community there is a fear that they are going to be erased in this conversation, and I want you to hear me clearly, and we see you, we embrace you and we know that this is about you, too.”
The event comes as the national fight over abortion access has escalated. The draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that would overturn Roe v. Wade lands on top of a slew of measures restricting abortions passed by conservative state legislatures recently.
The ruling in Roe v. Wade framed abortion as a constitutional right and protected it until a fetus is able to survive outside of the womb, which is around 23 to 24 weeks.
The leaked draft opinion indicates that Alito and four other Supreme Court justices are prepared to overrule that decision. In it, Alito writes that because abortion is not explicity listed in the Constitution, it should be decided by the states. Their final decision is expected to be handed down in June or July. Until then, abortions are still protected under Roe.
The legality of the procedure, however, has been under threat in Republican-led states, where increasingly restrictive legislation has eroded access. Thirteen states have passed what are known as trigger bans, which would go into effect immediately if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Harris has been a vocal proponent of abortion access both as a U.S. senator and in her 2019 run for president. In her campaign, she laid out a plan that would have required Justice Department approval for laws that would limit abortion access in certain states. In 2020, she scored 100 percent on her congressional voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that advocates for abortion, contraception access and other reproductive health issues.
How the Biden administration will respond to an overturning of Roe is unclear. In a statement released by the White House, President Joe Biden stated that the right to abortion is fundamental. He said his administration had directed his Gender Policy Council to prepare for any challenges to abortion law arising from cases currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
“We will be ready when any ruling is issued,” he said.
He also for the first time as president said the word abortion out loud publicly, when asked by reporters about the leaked draft. Biden, who is Catholic, has shied away from using strong language in the abortion rights debate, and in the past voted for positions opposed by abortions rights advocates, including against the use of federal funds for abortion care.
But there are efforts by his party to move legislation that would protect abortion access. The U.S. House has passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prohibit states from passing most anti-abortion laws. The legislation has stalled in the Senate, and at the gala House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on voters to send more women Democrats to Congress.
“Nothing is more wholesome to politics and government than the increased participation and leadership of women,” she said via video. Pivoting to the November midterms, she added: “We must win this election. We must hold and strengthen our majorities in the House and in the United States Senate.”
Emily’s List, in partnership with Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America, recently announced it was planning to spend $150 million in the 2022 midterms to help elect legislators who support abortion rights.
One of those legislators is Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, among the most vulnerable Democrats in the chamber up for reelection this year. She spoke at the event, saying the country is “facing a future without the right to choose.”
Her opponent, former attorney general Adam Laxalt, a Republican, called the contents in the leaked Supreme Court decision a “historic victory for the sanctity of life,” according to the Nevada Independent.
“We see this across the country: Far-right politicians are working to restrict all family planning services, denying a whole generation of women the freedom to plan for their future,” Cortez Masto told the crowd at the Emily’s List event. “The anti-choice movement is just getting started.”
“If Republicans defeat me, they will take back the U.S. Senate where my opponent would be an automatic vote for legislation punishing women for seeking an abortion. That is what's coming.”
Terri Rupar contributed to this report.