WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden insists that he strongly believes in the rights spelled out in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that are now under the most dire threat in decades.
But he barely even uses the word "abortion" and when his administration has been asked about what it can do to protect reproductive rights, the response has mostly been that Congress must write the landmark court decision into law, a strategy that is highly likely to fail.
To women who rallied to Biden’s presidential campaign in no small part to protect the landmark 1973 court ruling, that's not nearly enough.
The administration's measured response to a series of major setbacks for the right to have an abortion lacks in urgency for many advocates, who feel Biden should be doing more after the conservative-majority Supreme Court signaled a willingness to strike down all or part of the rights enshrined in the case that legalized abortion.
“What we want is to see is ideally the president use the bully pulpit to talk about abortion in a strong and effective way,” said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women's Law Center. “It matters. It matters for the stigma that surrounds abortion, and it matters to show that it's a priority for him and his administration.”
The frustration is part of a broader concern among Democrats that the president's focus on the massive issues of the economy and pandemic response have pushed other urgent matters out of the limelight, including voting rights, immigration and gun control.
It’s an approach that threatens to undermine Biden and Democrats heading into next year’s midterms when they need to rally the party’s most loyal voters, including women and Black people, to maintain control of Congress. It’s also part of a broader problem that women’s rights groups have with the Democrats' general reluctance to fully embrace the abortion issue in the way that Republicans have.
“This could be seen as an opportunity to talk about an issue that will be important to us in 2022,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “It doesn't have to be at the expense of his priorities." Cardona said "the White House and the bully pulpit and bull horn are big enough to fit all these messages.”
Energy on gun control, immigration and voting rights has been building on the left for years — at least since when President Barack Obama's legislative agenda stalled out after Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010. But many of the expected benefits of unified control of Washington under Biden have yet to materialize.
There have been studies, commissions, and a range of executive actions, but Biden has been focused on the issues he views as most pressing for the country, most passable in Congress, and posing the greatest return with voters.
Biden has wagered that the moderate voters who secured his White House victory over Donald Trump in 2020 were most attracted to his promises to end the pandemic and its associated economic disruption, and simply to prove Washington can work once again. For the most animated Democratic voters whose issues have not received the same attention, Biden is betting they'll still show up to vote in fear of what Republicans would do if they take charge once again.
Women's rights groups have long harbored some skepticism about Biden on the issue. He's a devoted Catholic whose views on the issue have changed over time. He reversed himself during his campaign on the so-called Hyde amendment — only belatedly opposing a legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. He did revoke the “Mexico City” policy that required non-governmental organizations as a condition of funding not to promote abortion as a family planning method in other countries.
Biden didn’t mention abortion rights once during a recent speech looking back over the year at a holiday fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. Women’s right activists are keeping track: He’s barely said the word in office, though there is no acknowledged strategy behind it.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has used the word multiple times, saying recently of Biden: “He’s committed to working with Congress to codify the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, as protected by Roe and subsequent Supreme Court precedent.”
Vice President Kamala Harris has of late been more vocal on the topic, a possible indication that she will be the one who is more likely to speak out in the future.
To some, Biden's aim is right on, and it's born of his long experience in government and the understanding that doing too much too fast is a recipe for getting nothing at all done. He's already pushed through more of his agenda than any other president in recent memory, especially with the passage of his $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
And despite a progressive generation of Democrats who want him to raise hell over culture war issues, he's got a bigger picture he must focus on, said William Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow and author of “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.”
“The most important objective of the Biden administration is to make sure that Donald Trump does not re-enter the Oval Office in January 2025," he said. “Everything else pales in consideration to that.”
But there are at least some things the president could do, liberals say, beyond urging Congress to pass legislation affirming abortion rights guaranteed in the court's historic rulings. Such a bill would probably never get through the Senate.
For some, adding more seats to the court would help solve the problem. For others, the recent decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ease up on restrictions for the abortion pill is a great start.
And some have suggested it doesn’t have to be Biden himself at the bullhorn — he could direct Harris and others in his administration to take up the topic more extensively.
There is support for protecting Roe. In 2020, AP VoteCast found 69% of voters in the presidential election said the Supreme Court should leave the Roe v. Wade decision as is; just 29% said the court should overturn the decision.
The Supreme Court’s historic 1973 decision legalized abortion throughout the United States and its 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirmed Roe.
But just a few weeks ago, the justices indicated they would uphold a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks, and would allow states to ban abortion much earlier in pregnancy. The court may even overturn the nationwide right that has existed for nearly 50 years.
At the very least, the court could undermine the Roe and Casey rulings, which allow states to regulate but not ban abortion up until the point of fetal viability, at roughly 24 weeks. The outcome probably won’t be known until June.