At a recent fundraiser he said he’s ‘not big on’ abortion. It’s not pro-choice activists who are out of step with the mainstream; it’s Joe Biden
Aclosed-door fundraiser for the very wealthy is a place where a lot of politicians really shine. Among their fellow elites, surrounded by people like them who like them – and are giving them money – Democrats and Republicans alike often become their truest selves. They drop the flesh-pressing affectations, the focused-group soundbites, the stiff smiles. They become something they’re usually not: honest.
Honest is what Biden was at a similar fundraiser in tony Chevy Chase, Maryland, this past Tuesday, when he told a crowd of his wealthy supporters that he was personally ambivalent about abortion rights. “I’m a practicing Catholic. I’m not big on abortion,” the president said. Nevertheless, he claimed that the compromise Roe v Wade decision on abortion “got it right
Biden’s reassertion of his own discomfort with abortion came just three days after the first anniversary of the US supreme court’s Dobbs decision, which eliminated the abortion right. In the year since women lost the constitutional right that the president says he is not “big on”, the bans that snapped into effect have had life-changing – life-ruining – effects for thousands.
Women have been forced to carry for months babies that cannot live outside the womb, which they have had to watch die after agonizing moments or hours of life. Women and girls have been forced to flee their home states to get abortions after being impregnated through rape. Women have lost their organs to abortion bans, needing emergency hysterectomies to save their lives after incomplete miscarriages or cesarean scar pregnancies. Others have been drafted into exercises in morbid futility, forced to carry fetuses that lack major organs, such as heads, in a new reality that has been likened to torture. Other women have been forced to become sicker and sicker – suffering, risking their lives, and incurring permanent damage to their bodies in order to be made ill enough that abortion might become legally permissible.
Many more women have been stripped of control over their lives – denied healthcare, denied the ability to plan their families, denied the freedom to choose the course of their own lives, for the sake of retrograde, bigoted and punitive conceptions of gender and sexuality held by others. And all American women, along with many trans people, have been degraded and humiliated by abortion bans, relegated to a lesser class of adult citizenship, informed that they are not permitted to control their own fates.
The abortion data project WeCount suggests that there were 25,640 fewer legal abortions in America in the year following Dobbs. That number does not account for the number of women – the unlucky ones – who received care only after their pregnancies sickened them to the brink of death. And it doesn’t account for the women – the lucky ones, as these things go – who were able to flee their home states and subject themselves to the indignity and burden of traveling for care. So the number is conservative. But still, it represents a staggering injustice: 25,640 violations of human rights; 25,640 people who deserved better.
Throughout the past year, members of the Biden administration, and President Biden in particular, have been largely absent from this unfolding catastrophe. They have not taken on an expansive view of executive authority in attempts to restore abortion rights; they have not pressed allies in Congress to advance pro-choice legislation; they have not been willing to challenge, even tentatively, an anti-choice federal judiciary that is wildly expanding its interpretations of its own power.
They are not even willing to do the one thing that the president has the unquestioned authority to do: use the bully pulpit to express solidarity with American women, to grieve for their lost health, futures and dignity, and to rally Americans to the increasingly popular pro-choice cause. Joe Biden has abdicated leadership on abortion, the loss of which is causing untold suffering, and which will define life prospects for a generation of women. Because he finds it distasteful. Because he’s not “big on” it.
It is not Catholicism that makes Joe Biden unwilling to issue a full-throated support of abortion rights. It is sexism
Lest this seem like an ungenerous reading of a well-intended gaffe, it should be noted that an unwillingness to advocate for abortion rights has been a recurring theme of his career. Abortion is a test that Joe Biden has failed every single time that history has called him to it. His paeans to his Catholic faith as cover for his unwillingness to champion abortion also ring false: most American Catholics support abortion rights. And as Jamie Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, pointed out, the church also fiercely opposes marriage equality, which the president has long championed. It is not Catholicism that makes Joe Biden unwilling to issue a full-throated support of abortion rights. It is sexism.
Until it became a political liability for him in the 2020 midterm cycle, Biden was among one of the last leading Democrats to support the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 provision that forbade federal funding for abortions, and which, because of its ban on Medicaid coverage of the procedure, made Roe’s protection of the abortion right largely moot for poor women almost as soon as it was achieved. Biden’s assertion that “Roe got it right,” is both disingenuous to this long-held position, which curtailed Roe’s protections, and also a sign of how indifferent and uninterested he has been in the insights of pro-choice activists, who have long argued that Roe was insufficient in its protections for abortion, inadequate in its argument for the right on privacy, rather than liberty and equality, grounds, and too diminished by subsequent attacks on abortion access that were pursued by rabidly anti-choice Republicans and allowed by cowardly “pro-choice” Democrats who never had the courage of their campaign promises.
But an indifference to abortion rights activists from Biden is no surprise: after the Dobbs decision, while his administration fumbled and tried to change the subject from their own incompetence and lack of preparation, it was not those who had conspired and schemed for decades against Roe who the Biden administration blamed, and it was not those who had snatched women’s rights away that they demonized. It was pro-choice activists.
“Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have consistently been out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic party,” his then-communications director, Kate Bedingfield, sneered.
Mission accomplished: pro-choice activists are not satisfied with Joe Biden. But abortion is a salient issue, one that is only growing more popular, and more electorally persuasive, every day. In light of the post-Dobbs political reality, Joe Biden’s unwillingness to give unqualified support to abortion rights is not just morally cowardly; it’s also politically irresponsible. Republicans are running from the issue, and the Biden campaign is declining to attack them on it. Voters are rallying around abortion rights, and the Biden campaign is declining to lead them.
The time for apologetic, defensive, partial non-defenses of abortion rights is over, and America’s newly mobilized pro-choice majority knows it. It’s not the activists who are out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic party. It’s Joe Biden.