Joe Biden’s recent flip on federal funding for abortions has activists on both sides wondering: What does he believe now when it comes to reproductive rights?
For decades, the former vice president opposed late-term and so-called partial birth abortions, lamenting that one ban enacted in the 1990s did not go far enough. He supported Republican presidents’ prohibitions on funding for groups that promote abortions overseas, and backed legislation that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade. He even fought unsuccessfully to widen religious groups’ exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for birth control coverage.
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Now Biden is competing in a Democratic primary against a throng of rivals who are rolling out detailed proposals to protect and expand abortion rights — an issue the candidates will have to confront Saturday at a forum in South Carolina hosted by Planned Parenthood. And that means he will likely face direct questions on issues where he remains a cipher.
Biden’s campaign declined to respond to questions about his positions on a range of reproductive rights issues, including what if any abortion curbs he still supports. He flipped positions two weeks ago on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for almost all abortions — a provision he had supported for decades, even opposing exceptions for victims of rape or incest.
Now, with abortion rights increasingly threatened under a conservative-majority Supreme Court, advocates on both sides of the debate want to know what Biden believes.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m against the Hyde Amendment’ or ‘I support women’s right to choose,’ but what are the proposals he would put forward as president to fix access and address barriers to abortion?” said Destiny Lopez, the co-founder of the abortion rights organization All Above All. “We need to see a proactive vision for abortion access that goes beyond Roe, and if we don’t see that, I don’t know, frankly, how we can know if they actually mean what they say.”
Abortion-rights opponents have similar questions, especially after Biden’s abrupt change of heart on Hyde.
“It makes you wonder what else he’ll cave on,” said Maureen Ferguson, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association and former lobbyist for National Right to Life Committee. “The way he crumbled in 24 hours, it was more than disappointing. It was utterly disheartening.”
Biden over 36 years in Congress staked out a reputation as one of the Democratic Party’s most conservative voices on abortion, frequently citing his Catholic faith.
In public statements, interviews and recently resurfaced videos, Biden said he believed that “abortion is wrong from the moment of conception,”and said he doesn’t “view abortion as a choice and a right” but rather “always a tragedy.” He also said he did not believe that “a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
Biden voted for the adoption of the Hyde Amendment in the 1970s and later opposed efforts to make exemptions and fund abortions for women who were victims of rape or incest.
He held that position until just a few weeks ago, when a progressive activist asked him on a campaign rope line in South Carolina whether he still would commit to “abolishing” Hyde’s funding ban and he replied that he would. His campaign quickly clarified that Biden still supported the amendment and had misheard the woman’s question, triggering a tempest involving lawmakers, other 2020 candidates and major progressive groups who blasted Biden for backing a policy they argue hurts low-income women.
A day later, Biden reversed course, citing the recent wave of abortion bans in conservative states and saying that “circumstances have changed” and Hyde should be repealed.
Tom Shakely, chief engagement officer of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, questioned whether Biden was sacrificing his principles. “It’s difficult to see how a regular American is to make sense of Mr. Biden holding one position for nearly half a century and then tossing it the minute it became politically inconvenient,” he said.
Progressives also are skeptical.
“It’s really about what people do when the vote is right at their feet,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO. “I think it’s fair for a voter to look at someone’s record and say, ‘This person supported Hyde when they were actually in the position to change it.’”
The dust-up over the Hyde amendment may not be Biden’s only reckoning on reproductive health issues.
He’s likely to use Saturday’s Planned Parenthood forum to focus on how he voted against a bill he supported just a year earlier that would have allowed states to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and his opposition to confirming Supreme Court nominees with anti-abortion views, including Robert Bork.
He has also switched positions on the so-called Mexico City policy, imposed by Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan and expanded by Donald Trump, that bans U.S. aid to groups that provide or promote abortion in other countries. He long supported that prohibition but now says he would strike it down.
But there are other positions, particularly around the issue of abortions later in pregnancy, that Biden has not discussed since launching his 2020 campaign.
He told constituents when he was running for reelection in 1996 and 2002 that he wanted to outlaw the late-term surgical procedure dilation and extraction, commonly called partial birth abortion, according to letters obtained by POLITICO. “Please know I will continue to work for legislation to ban partial-birth abortions,” he wrote to a constituent.
In the Senate, Biden voted multiple times in favor of the ban, and lamented in 1997 that the legislation did not go beyond banning just that one form of surgical abortion.
“It did not, as I would have liked, ban all post-viability abortions,” he said. “We do not go far enough.”
The Catholic Association’s Ferguson was the lead lobbyist advocating for the ban in the 1990s, and spoke several times with Biden about a variety of anti-abortion policies. Now, she says, she has no idea where he stands.
“If Biden sees viability cut-off as an appropriate cut off, would he support a 20-week ban?” she asked. “If he didn’t have the strength to ride out the criticism on Hyde, I don’t have a lot of hope he’d support it.”
Biden’s campaign won’t say whether he would sign a ban on abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, which Republican lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to enact. But abortion-right advocates and opponents of the procedure are each hoping for more clarity starting this weekend.
“Put some meat on the bones,” said Lopez of All Above All. “What are their plans for health care and how does abortion fit into them?”