The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden says America is leading. On abortion, Europeans disagree.

He seeks to reaffirm moral leadership but must do so after the Supreme Court decision on abortion

President Biden speaks in Kruen, Germany, flanked by other leaders of the Group of Seven. (Michael Kappeler/Associated Press)
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TELFS, Austria — Since taking office, the message undergirding nearly all of President Biden’s foreign trips has been that America is back.

But as Biden began a five-day swing through Europe on Sunday, he arrived in the Bavarian Alps bearing a less pleasant reality: America is backward, at least in the view of almost every foreign leader with whom he will meet this week, who responded to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned a woman’s right to abortion with abject dismay and alarm.

“A big step backward,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, asked about the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at a news conference Friday, before adding, “I’ve always believed in a woman’s right to choose.”

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter, calling abortion “a fundamental right for all women.”

“It must be protected,” Macron wrote. “I wish to express my solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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For Biden, a president who came to office promising a return to stability and predictability after four tumultuous years under his predecessor, the Friday ruling offered yet another reminder of the lasting legacy of former president Donald Trump, whose three Supreme Court appointees tipped the balance on the bench and with a stroke of their powerful pens upended five decades of settled law.

It was against this backdrop that he began a trip on Sunday meant to focus on how to fix Ukraine, a fledgling democracy fighting Russia’s autocratic forces. But Biden now must also reckon with how his own country, a democracy dating back centuries, is grappling with antidemocratic forces internally and, in the view of his counterparts at least, falling behind the hallmarks of other Western nations.

On a range of issues, from gun control to abortion rights to the Jan. 6 insurrection, American popular opinion is at odds with a political system that appears to be giving significant weight to a vocal minority, and that has not escaped the notice of the country’s democratic allies.

“There is profound consternation about all this,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a think tank in Brussels. “I don’t think this reflects on Biden personally, his authority, his leadership at this particular moment in time. But it definitely, definitely strengthens the idea, which is already widely felt across Europe, in 2024 a Democratic president won’t be elected. They believe another Trump-like president could come.”

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Indeed, the abrupt loss of many women’s reproductive rights in the United States followed Biden abroad, with the president addressing a question on the recent ruling shortly before he departed the White House for the Group of Seven summit in Germany. Asked by a reporter if he thought the Supreme Court was broken, Biden paused and then responded, “I think the Supreme Court has made some terrible decisions.”

The topic also dominated the questions posed to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre aboard Air Force One on Saturday en route to Germany. “This is a scary time. We understand that,” she said. “What happened yesterday with the decision from the Supreme Court is extreme. That decision is extreme.”

Jean-Pierre was also asked how the Supreme Court decision will impact the standing of the United States overseas, especially in parts of the world where the administration is working to promote women’s rights. “I don’t think this stops the work that the president is going to do or wants to do or is looking to do with leaders,” she said.

The German parliament on Friday, the same day the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, voted to strike down a Nazi-era law saying that doctors who advertise abortions, or provide information on them, could face up to two years in prison or a fine.

German leaders touted that decision as a big move forward for women’s rights. An era of “distrust in women and distrust in doctors is coming to an end,” said German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann.

Still, abortion remains technically illegal in Germany. But penalties are not enforced if the pregnancy poses a risk to health, was a result of a sexual crime, or if the procedure is carried out during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy after mandatory counseling.

Abortion is protected by law in many countries around the world

Yet the focus leading to the summit and during its early hours remained on the United States, which in the view of many Europeans has just turned back the clock on nearly 50 years of women’s reproductive rights.

“The news coming out of the United States is horrific,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter on Friday. “My heart goes out to the millions of American women who are now set to lose their legal right to an abortion. I can’t imagine the fear and anger you are feeling right now.”

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen wrote in a Facebook post, “My heart cries for girls and women in the United States. A huge setback. The right to free abortion is one of the most fundamental rights that exists.” Denmark is not part of the G-7 but is a member of NATO, and Biden heads to Spain midweek for a meeting of the military alliance.

It is an unaccustomed role for the United States, which takes pride in holding itself out as a pinnacle of democracy and human rights and rarely hesitates to condemn other countries for their failings in those areas. Trump had little interest in playing that role on the global stage, and Biden has been at great pains to restore it.

To Americans who oppose abortion, of course, the Supreme Court decision represents a giant step forward in protecting human rights, specifically those of the unborn. But that is not how many foreign leaders see it, and even some countries absent from the pair of summits joined in the chorus. China, an autocracy with a long record of human rights abuses, took the opportunity to mock American pretensions to moral leadership.

“Can’t understand US way of protecting human rights — think it necessary to protect the rights of an unborn child, but quite OK to tolerate the shooting of children in schools,” wrote a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Twitter on Saturday.

On Sunday, in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Johnson suggested that American domestic policies can resonate globally. The British prime minister called the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision “important psychologically for people around the world” and again described the Supreme Court reversal as “a backward step.”

Johnson also described the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol as “pretty weird,” while still taking pains to depict the United States as “a shining city on a hill.” He said, “I don’t believe that American democracy is under serious threat, far from it.”

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On Biden’s first full day at the G-7 summit, he sought to move beyond a focus on Roe, turning his attention to Ukraine and other international crises. He met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss the war and participated in a lunch with other leaders to talk about the global economy. In the evening, Biden delivered remarks to launch a global infrastructure push.

When a reporter asked, “Has the Roe decision come up in any of the meetings?” Biden responded that it was “not related to Ukraine or any of the issues we discussed.” Pressed on whether any of the leaders raised the matter, Biden answered, “No.”

At least publicly, Biden seemed energized by grappling with the kinds of international issues that have interested him for decades. Summits often serve an unspoken function of allowing leaders to escape their thorny or embarrassing domestic problems, Balfour said, and the heads of state can be reluctant to bring up each other’s challenges back home.

But in this instance, Biden’s visit comes just after a judicial bombshell that prompted a wide swath of top world leaders to send out public statements questioning America’s direction and underlining European skepticism about the United States as a stalwart partner in the post-Trump era.

Many Americans may not fully understand how drastic the abortion decision looks to people overseas, Balfour suggested. “For Europeans, this is like the Taliban,” she said. “If we’re going to do a comparative analysis on women’s rights, the closest comparison comes with Afghanistan and the Taliban. This is something that could not happen in most of Europe.”

It also comes as many European allies continue to question the American policy on gun control. While Biden signed new gun control legislation about an hour before leaving for Europe, that measure does little to close the gap between the U.S. approach and strict European gun laws. “If you put these two things together, few Europeans would think of America as a nation that is back,” Balfour said.

Still, for Biden, the G-7 sessions seemed to offer a respite from his domestic headaches, as the leaders sat for lunch on Sunday and roundly mocked Russian President Vladimir Putin in lighthearted banter prompted by Johnson’s public musing over how the leaders should attire themselves for an unofficial photo before their lunch meeting began.

“Jackets on? Jackets off? Shall we take our clothes off?” Johnson wondered aloud, before joking, “We all have to show that we’re tougher than Putin.”

“We’re going to get the bare-chested horseback riding display,” quipped Trudeau, referring to the Russian president’s predilection for distributing photos of himself shirtless. “There you go! There you go! We’ve got to show them our pecs!” Johnson added.

Near-simultaneously, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a stab at diplomacy, attempting to turn the conversation away from teasing Putin with an enthusiastic endorsement of equestrianism. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Horseback riding is the best, though!”

Biden, who had remained silent during the repartee, finally, at the urging of his fellow leaders, swiveled his chair around and smiled for the photo. He opted for jackets on.

Loveday Morris in Mittenwald, Germany, contributed to this report.

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