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With Roe Under Threat, Biden Is an Unlikely Abortion Rights Champion


WASHINGTON — When abortion rights supporters protested outside the Supreme Court this week after the leak of a draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, they turned their ire at one point toward the identical president who just hours earlier denounced the possible ruling just as they were doing.

“If you wish to be a pro-choice president,” declared Renee Bracey Sherman, a distinguished abortion rights leader and creator, “you’ve got to start out acting like a pro-choice president.”

The group agreed, chanting loudly: “Where is Joe? Where is Joe?”

For President Biden, the threat to the landmark Roe decision represents a singular challenge as he attempts to place aside a protracted history of evident discomfort with the problem of abortion to remodel himself right into a champion of the constitutional right that will soon be erased from the law books.

Over the course of a half-century in national politics, Mr. Biden has rarely been the full-throated backer of abortion rights that activists have sought, evolving from an outright critic of Roe early in his profession to a seemingly reluctant and largely quiet supporter. While he has used the word “abortion” in written statements as president, he had never spoken the word out loud since taking office until this week when the draft ruling leaked.

“If he won’t even discuss abortion (no votes or budget needed) or give us a plan he’s won’t go daring to guard us,” Ms. Bracey Sherman, the founder and executive director of We Testify, a company representing women who’ve had abortions, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

“He could possibly be out making speeches,” she added. “He could possibly be using his executive order powers. He could deputize abortion providers to make them immune from prosecution. He could possibly be doing anything. He could possibly be trying. But he’s silent. And he won’t meet with us to debate plans.”

To some extent, Mr. Biden’s reticence has reflected a broader unease amongst many Democratic leaders lately to spotlight abortion rights nationally, focusing as a substitute on specific states and districts where they’re a stronger political selling point. While polls show a robust majority favor preserving Roe, additionally they show ambivalence about unlimited abortion rights.

White House officials insisted that Mr. Biden would use his office to do whatever he could to counter any ruling by the Supreme Court overturning Roe, but there are limits to his authority and aides outlined no specific ideas into account. Even in his comments in recent days, Mr. Biden has not dwelled on abortion but relatively quickly shifted the discussion to a broader range of privacy rights that he argued can be imperiled by the opinion drafted by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“That is about rather a lot greater than abortion,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Wednesday, citing gay rights and contraception. “What are the subsequent things which might be going to be attacked? Because this MAGA crowd is de facto essentially the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history — in recent American history.”

To the extent that he has discussed abortion this week, he used phrasing that was removed from the popular language of his own side. On Tuesday, he referred to “the judgment to decide on to abort a baby,” a wording that looked as if it would accept the anti-abortion argument that it’s a baby, not merely a fetus, that’s aborted.

As a substitute, it fell to Vice President Kamala Harris to supply the administration’s most robust response to the court’s possible ruling.

“Those Republican leaders who are attempting to weaponize using the law against women — well, we are saying, ‘How dare they!’” she thundered on Tuesday night on the annual conference of Emily’s List, a bunch that helps elect Democratic women supporting abortion rights. “How dare they tell a girl what she will do and can’t do together with her own body. How dare they! How dare they struggle to stop her from determining her own future! How dare they struggle to disclaim women their rights and their freedoms!”

Longtime advisers said that Mr. Biden’s position on the problem was clear and that he preferred to make use of words like “privacy” relatively than “abortion” since it appealed to a wider swath of the general public. At her briefing on Wednesday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, brushed off questions on why he referred to aborting “a baby” and said quibbles about terminology don’t undermine his fundamental stance.


May 4, 2022, 7:02 p.m. ET

“When he talks about his commitment to protecting a girl’s right to decide on, women’s health care, he’s referring to protecting a girl’s right to have an abortion,” she said. “I believe most individuals know that.”

That was not where he began, nevertheless. Mr. Biden, a practicing Roman Catholic, has struggled with the problem over time. A former aide said Mr. Biden would personally never have considered abortion if it got here up in his family but at all times made women’s rights a priority, citing his success in enacting the Violence Against Women Act.

Mr. Biden was first sworn into the Senate in January 1973, just 17 days before the Supreme Court issued Roe. and on the time he accused the justices of going “too far.” In an interview a 12 months later, he said a girl shouldn’t have “the only real right to say what should occur to her body.”

In 1982, Mr. Biden voted for a constitutional amendment pushed by President Ronald Reagan allowing individual states to overturn Roe. He called it “the one most difficult vote I’ve solid as a U.S. senator” but explained it within the context of his faith. “I’m probably a victim, or a product, nevertheless you wish to phrase it, of my background,” he said. He reversed himself and voted against the amendment a 12 months later.

For years, he voted for the so-called Hyde Amendment barring using federal Medicaid funds for abortion and proposed an amendment of his own to ban foreign aid for biomedical research related to abortion. He voted for laws outlawing a rare late-term abortion procedure. But as he noted repeatedly in recent days, he also led the fight against confirming Robert H. Bork, an outspoken abortion foe nominated by Reagan to the Supreme Court.

By the point Mr. Biden was gearing up for his second run for the presidency, he presented himself as a modified man. “I used to be 29 years old once I got here to the U.S. Senate, and I even have learned rather a lot,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC in 2007. “Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it’s the largest dilemma for me when it comes to comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility.”

His shift in position to fulfill his political needs was most recently on display in 2019 as he battled more progressive opponents to win the Democratic presidential nomination. In the future his campaign said he still supported the Hyde Amendment, but after an uproar on the left, he reversed his longstanding stance the subsequent day.

Consequently, either side share uncertainty about his true convictions. “If you happen to follow his history on this, Joe Biden has been on this issue wherever he thought it was politically expedient,” said David N. O’Steen, the manager director of the National Right to Life Committee. “Internally how does he really feel? No one really knows how he feels.”

Since taking office, Mr. Biden’s White House released a National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality pledging to “protect the constitutional right to secure and legal abortion established in Roe v. Wade.” The administration rolled back Trump administration restrictions on this system generally known as Title X, which provides access to family planning services and supports clinics that counsel women on abortion.

A Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to debate internal deliberations, said the president had now directed his team to be as creative as possible using executive motion to guard abortion rights.

Appearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, vowed to “double down on the hassle to make sure that that the legal right of Americans, women, to access the care they’re entitled to continues.”

But in need of muscling laws through Congress, or using his bully pulpit, options are limited. Some experts suggested the federal government could direct resources to groups that provide housing, transportation and other support to women who cross state lines looking for an abortion. But that might violate the Hyde Amendment.

If the court does overturn Roe, the subsequent battleground might be over abortion pills. Because it became legal in 2000, medication abortion has develop into increasingly common and now accounts for greater than half of recent abortions. If Roe falls by the wayside, states controlled by Republicans will probably ban medication abortion as well.

Legal experts said the Biden administration could challenge those bans by arguing that since the pills are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s legal for doctors in any state to prescribe them. Asked about this, the Biden adviser said Mr. Biden wouldn’t dictate anything to the Justice Department.

Some Democrats expressed frustration that their party’s leaders haven’t been more forceful in making abortion rights a signature issue. “Where is the Democratic Party?” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said on Wednesday. “Where’s the counteroffensive?”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and an ally of the White House, pointed to statements by Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris and expressed confidence they might rise to the political challenge. “I believe that they might be leading on it,” she said in an interview. “After all their voices might be really necessary.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.

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