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What Biden and Democrats say — and avoid saying — on abortion limits

On May 3 President Biden characterized a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade as “radical.” (Video: The Washington Post)
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A pretty striking tweet came over the transom late Thursday afternoon. According to the Republican National Committee, President Biden had just come out against any limits on abortion.

The guy who as recently as 2006 said he viewed abortion primarily as a “tragedy,” not “a choice and a right,” suddenly wanted no restrictions on that right? (The RNC also put out a news release titled, “Biden supports abortion without limits.”)

If you look closely at the tweet, though, you’ll see how misleading it is. While the questions are in quotation marks, the answers — “No,” “Yes” — are not. And there’s a reason for that: White House press secretary Jen Psaki didn’t say those words.

Rather than directly answer the questions, she punted, merely referring to Biden’s past answers on the subject. The tweet conveying this false impression of the president’s position has now been shared about 5,000 times and garnered about 10,000 likes.

A few points on this. One is that the punt is newsworthy: In recent years, Democrats have declined to state directly what, if any, limits they would put on the right to choose to have an abortion. The second is that their commentary — including Biden’s — has clearly trended leftward. The third is that the party’s position is often oversold as embracing abortion under any circumstances.

Even the premise of the question to Psaki took plenty of liberties.

Fox News’s Peter Doocy had asked, “Tim Ryan said yesterday that he does not support any limits on abortion. Is that where the president’s thinking is now?”

It would also be extremely newsworthy if Ryan, a candidate for Ohio’s Senate seat, said such a thing. Like Biden, he is practicing Catholic and was once an ally of abortion rights critics. He even called himself “a pro-life member of Congress” as recently as 2009.

Abortion has long been complicated for Biden. Now, he leads the fight.

But, like Biden, he didn’t precisely say he opposes any limits. When asked a similar question on Wednesday, he said that “you got to leave it up to the woman” and that “you and I sitting here can’t account for all of the different scenarios that a woman dealing with the complexities of a pregnancy are going through.” But when asked the question earlier in the same interview, he suggested support for the standards set by Roe v. Wade, which grants a right to an abortion until fetal viability, or about 23 or 24 weeks.

(A spokeswoman for Ryan on Friday didn’t further detail his position, saying merely that Ryan “believes we need the protections provided by Roe v. Wade women have had for 50 years.”)

Ryan’s “leave it up to the woman” comment reflects how many high-profile Democrats have responded to such questions — avoiding a direct answer while emphasizing “choice.” As we wrote during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, it was the position of several top contenders:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in answer to Fox News’s question on the subject — “Do you believe a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?” — said that it happens “very, very rarely” but that, “The decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government and not the local government.”
  • Pete Buttigieg, too, pushed back on the question from Fox, while adding, “that decision is not going to be made any better medically or morally because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.”
  • Beto O’Rourke came closer to explicitly embracing a no-limits approach, with a spokeswoman telling me, “politicians have no place in these decisions, including these very rare instances.”

That position wasn’t universal, though. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that “there are limits there in the third trimester that are very important.” Others declined to detail their positions despite multiple requests from The Washington Post.

This is a question that has long lacked clarity, despite Fox’s efforts to force the issue. Democrats like to talk about abortion being a choice without delving into whether there should be any limits on when that choice is available — as there are in the vast majority of states, which limit abortion between 22 and 24 weeks or at fetal viability, except when the life and/or health of the woman are at stake. Similar to how Republicans label abortion “murder” and then support allowing it in the cases of rape or incest, there is a tension here between the simplified talking point and the details. (Though Republicans are moving away from those exceptions.)

As with Republicans and rape and incest exceptions, the reason many talk around the issue is obvious: public opinion. A poll last year showed 8 in 10 Americans oppose making abortion legal in the third trimester “in most cases.” That’s similar to the number who oppose forcing pregnancies from rape and incest to be brought to term. Even people who call themselves “pro-choice” largely support limits, and even those who call themselves “pro-life” largely support exceptions.

At the same time, Democrats don’t want to alienate the most passionate abortion rights supporters — who see nothing wrong with later abortions and, indeed, have been pushing for leaders to voice active support for them, and more explicitly.

Democrats rightly note that it is very rare for someone to seek an abortion so late and that many women who do so have reasons beyond personal preference — situations that are already legal in most states. But it does happen. And it’s difficult to say what might happen if laws were relaxed, because currently only six states have no time limit on abortions, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It’s also true that, in states that limit later abortions, there has been little in the way of a Democratic push to significantly extend the window — unlike Republicans, who in a number of states have recently passed a raft of abortion restrictions without rape and incest exceptions.

A 2019 bill in Virginia would have relaxed late-term restrictions but not allowed late-term abortions under merely any circumstances. It gained publicity because of comments from a Democratic state legislator and then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who spoke clumsily about what would happen with a nonviable fetus born with severe abnormalities. The bill did not become law.

Republicans have also suggested that a bill currently pushed by congressional Democrats — the Women’s Health Protection Act, which passed in the House and was advanced with 48 Democratic votes in the Senate — would allow for abortion at any point. In fact, the bill provides a right to abortion post-viability only when, “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.” This echoes the laws of many states.

There is no question Democrats don’t like directly answering this question, which is telling — especially with the likes of Ryan and Biden, the latter of whom supported a constitutional amendment in 1982 that would have allowed individual states to overturn Roe. But as we confront the new political paradigm in what may soon be a post-Roe world, it might be better to seek clarity rather than put words in people’s months.