Democrats — most of them, at least — are done apologizing for their support of abortion rights.
The proximate cause is the unprecedented assault on Roe v. Wade now being waged in statehouses and the courts, with the serious likelihood that in the near future the Supreme Court could either overturn the decision entirely or gut it beyond recognition. The threat to the right to abortion has produced both fear and a new reexamination of how Democrats have talked and acted about this issue for years.
Which is why the Hyde Amendment is suddenly an issue in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Some background: The 1976 amendment is named for its sponsor, then-Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. It bars federal funds from being spent on abortions for women covered by Medicaid, except in very narrow circumstances. What it means in practice is that if you’re poor, it can be difficult or impossible to afford an abortion.
As the Hyde Amendment was repeatedly renewed over the years, repealing it was never a real possibility, even though many Democrats objected to it. The party considered it essentially a price that had to be paid for Roe’s protections: Abortion rights will continue to exist, but the federal government won’t dirty its hands by making the right real for everyone. It wasn’t until 2016 that the party’s platform explicitly called for repealing the amendment.
Meanwhile, many elected Democrats (often though not always Catholics) said they were “personally opposed” to abortion but nonetheless supported protecting the right as a matter of law. To be frank, it’s a position that deserves more interrogation than it has gotten. If I told you I “personally opposed” white and black people marrying each other but supported Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down laws banning interracial marriage, you probably wouldn’t consider me a reliable advocate of civil rights. Nevertheless, the position of the Democratic Party was that as long as you supported the legal right, that was good enough.
One of those who were “personally opposed” was Joe Biden. As Heidi Przybyla of NBC News reports, Biden has a complicated history of support for Roe v. Wade coupled with support for certain kinds of restrictions on abortion.
Most notably, Biden continues to support the Hyde Amendment. He has also voted to restrict federal funding even beyond what Hyde requires and used rhetoric characteristic of the antiabortion movement. “Those of us who are opposed to abortions should not be compelled to pay for them,” he told constituents in a 1994 letter.
This makes him an outlier in the Democratic race. There’s a bill in Congress called the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act that would effectively repeal the Hyde Amendment. Among the co-sponsors of its latest version are Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala D. Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell and Seth Moulton — in other words, every currently serving member of Congress who’s also running for president, with the exception of Michael Bennet, Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan.
Nevertheless, Ryan is on record supporting the repeal of the amendment, as are Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee, Bill de Blasio and Julián Castro. And recently, ThinkProgress reported that the campaigns of Gabbard, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Wayne Messam and Marianne Williamson responded to an inquiry by saying they support federal funding for abortion, which would put them in opposition to the amendment.
Which leaves us with three candidates — Bennet, Mike Gravel and Andrew Yang — who haven’t said anything publicly I could find about the Hyde Amendment or the broader issue of federal funding for abortion. And only one out of the 24 — Joe Biden — who explicitly says he supports it.
This is just one of many issues where Biden has what used to be a pretty mainstream position within the party that has more recently become controversial. And the more questions he gets asked about it, the harder it’s going to be to defend.
Because if you believe women should have a right to an abortion, that right ought to have practical meaning for everyone. We believe that the Constitution’s right of due process requires that you have legal representation if you’re accused of a crime, but we don’t say that if you can’t afford it, tough luck. We provide public defenders, because the right would be hollow if it were available only to those who could afford it.
As for Biden’s argument — “Those of us who are opposed to abortions should not be compelled to pay for them" — that’s also entirely unpersuasive. All of us pay for things with our tax dollars that we don’t approve of, every single day. The moral objection some people might have to a given expenditure — even if they feel really strongly about it — isn’t a veto over what everyone else thinks ought to be the policy.
The simple way to think about this issue is that the party has moved left and therefore left some people behind. But it might be better understood as the party finally getting fed up with apologizing for what they believe, and acting accordingly. Everyone seeking to be the party’s leader is going to have to decide where that leaves them.