Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Pittsburgh on April 29. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

There has long been a relatively safe space for a Democratic politician, particularly a Catholic one, to inhabit on the morally fraught issue of abortion.

It was the stance that then-Vice President Joe Biden took during a 2012 debate: “Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life,” Biden said. “But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. . . . I do not believe we have a right to tell other people — women — that they can’t control their body.”

At the time, that blanket declaration was enough to satisfy most Democrats. It is not anymore — as Biden learned this week, when the man who leads all the polls for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination was thrown off balance on the question of government funding for abortion.

It was a head-spinning turnaround on a position that Biden has held practically since the dawn of his Senate career. On Wednesday, Biden’s campaign affirmed his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment, a provision in federal law that, since the 1970s, has banned Medicaid from paying for abortions, except in rare cases.

And then, amid an outcry, Biden within a day reversed himself, saying: “I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to constitute — exercise their constitutionally protected right.”

This is not one of those issues, such as same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization, for which society has undergone a dramatic shift in attitudes. Public opinion on abortion has been remarkably stable, if closely divided, since the Supreme Court legalized it in 1973 with its decision on Roe v. Wade. While a plurality of Americans have moral qualms about the procedure, most also believe it should remain available, within limits.

What does shift, sometimes drastically, is the politics surrounding abortion.

Part of that has to do with how the issue is defined: If the focus is on the procedure itself, as opposed to the rights of the pregnant woman, abortion foes tend to gain the advantage — as they did when they campaigned against a specific late-term abortion method and managed in 2003 to pass the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which Biden supported.

But context matters, too. For many years, Biden’s position on the Hyde Amendment was in the mainstream, even among Democrats. With abortion opponents gaining little ground in their efforts to overturn Roe , the provision was framed as an effort against federal overreach in the other direction — taxpayers would not be required to subsidize a procedure that, while legal, was against many people’s moral principles.

In 2010, with the fate of the Affordable Care Act hanging in the balance, the Obama administration sought to win the last few votes of wavering Democrats by assuring them that the Hyde Amendment would remain in place. At the time, Biden promised that the revamped health system “will not allow you to take any subsidized government money you get and say, ‘with that money I’m going to go now — I can go purchase an insurance plan that provides for abortions.’ The principle is intact.”

Since then, abortion rights have come under assault in the states. As Republicans took over legislatures, they moved to shut down clinics with stricter regulations, and the debate shifted more toward the question of access. As it did, the Hyde Amendment came under renewed scrutiny, because it put poor women at a disadvantage. In 2016, for the first time, the Democratic Party platform called for its repeal.

Biden on Thursday said he changed his position in response to tough new laws that aim to virtually ban abortion in some states. “I have supported the Hyde Amendment like many, many others have,” he said, “because there were sufficient moneys and circumstances where women were able to exercise that right — women of color, poor women, women who were not able to have access — and it was not under attack as it is now. But circumstances have changed.”

If states continue their moves to ban abortion, however, and if they are upheld by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, the ultimate end would be that abortion ceases to be available for anyone in many parts of the country.

The edges of the debate are being more sharply defined. When Biden last ran for president a dozen years ago, he boasted of having found a “middle-of-the-road position on abortion.” In 2020, he is discovering, such a place no longer exists.