Before his entry into the 2020 presidential race, there was plenty of discussion about where former vice president Joe Biden would fall on abortion. His attempts to clarify that question haven’t necessarily erased doubts among abortion rights supporters, and they have probably made it harder for him to make inroads with abortion rights opponents.
Biden has a record of supporting abortion rights, but he drew scrutiny from abortion rights supporters — a key Democratic constituency — for comments like this one he made during a 2006 interview with Texas Monthly.
I’m a little bit of an odd man out in my party. I do not vote for funding for abortion. I voted against partial birth abortion -- to limit it -- and I vote for no restrictions on a woman’s right to be able to have an abortion under Roe v. Wade. And, so I am -- I made everybody angry. I made the right-to-life people angry because I won’t support a constitutional amendment or limitations on a woman’s right to exercise her constitutional right as defined by Roe v. Wade. And I’ve made the groups -- the women’s groups and others -- very angry because I won’t support public funding and I won’t support partial birth abortion.
The politics of abortion have become even more charged since that interview, when Biden was on the cusp of launching his last White House bid. Republican legislatures in several states have passed bills making it much more difficult for women to have abortions even in cases of rape and incest. And on the left, there is far less tolerance for politicians who would in any way restrict abortion rights.
Earlier this month, Biden abandoned his long-held support for the Hyde Amendment just days after affirming support for it. Here’s how my Fix colleague Amber Phillips describes the amendment — which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except to save the life of the woman or in cases of rape or incest — and Biden’s reversal on it:
There’s a divide between former vice president Joe Biden and everyone else in the field. Or, there was until Biden’s sudden shift on Thursday. In 2016, Democrats made repealing the amendment part of their party platform. But Biden, who says he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman’s right to choose, said this week he would keep the amendment. Then suddenly on Thursday, he told supporters he would oppose it.
Given these changes, Biden is finding it tricky to assuage the concerns raised by Democrats he needs to win the nomination. At the same time, he’s moving away from positions that he could use to make connections with voters who are more moderate or conservative on the issue.
Activist and writer Leah McElrath told The Fix that Biden’s patterns over time mean more to her than his recent comments about making abortion more accessible.
“Joe Biden has been visible in national politics for my entire adult life, and he has never been a strong advocate on behalf of women’s bodily autonomy,” McElrath said. “I find it hard to trust when it’s time to compromise — and that time always comes in politics — that the rights of my daughter and all other women and girls in this country will be something he sees as a nonnegotiable issue and will champion on our behalf."
And Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, told The Fix that Biden’s recent pivot sends a message to conservatives looking for a candidate willing to respect their religious convictions.
“The Hyde Amendment was an attempt to compromise between pro-life and pro-choice supporters,” he said. “If abortion remains legal, those who believe it to be the taking of innocent life should not be coerced to fund it. For a presidential candidate to reject that compromise signals to me that he is not concerned with respecting the consciences of pro-life citizens. Similarly, his support for codifying Roe in a law shows that he does not want to keep the status quo; he wants to expand abortion rights.”
The reality of Biden’s position was driven home over the weekend at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund forum he attended in South Carolina. Women shared their personal stories related to abortion, and one asked Biden to explain his “mixed record” on the issue.
He pushed back on the idea that he had a mixed record.
“First of all, I’m not sure about the mixed record part,” he said before his mic cut out. “I’ve had 100 percent voting record. . . .”
When the mic came back on, Biden discussed his plan to extend health care to everyone, which would allow low-income women to have coverage that could fund abortions. He went on to share his plans to codify into federal law Roe v. Wade, which some conservatives hoped would be overturned under President Trump.
And Biden shared his goals to reverse policies limiting abortion rights put into place by Trump, whom Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen called “the most fearlessly pro-life president in history.”
While these plans may be well-received by some on the left, as they become more well-known, criticism of Biden’s abortion views is bound to pick up among those on the right.
The former lawmaker is running as a centrist on many issues with the belief that most Americans want the country led by someone in the middle of issues. But when it comes to abortion, Biden may discover that the hardest position to take is the one where many are uncertain about whose side you’re taking.