In a dramatic reversal, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Thursday he no longer supports a ban on federal funding for abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment, a move he announced after a day of sharp criticism from campaign rivals and key Democratic interest groups.
The former vice president announced the change during a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s African American Leadership Council summit in Atlanta, telling the crowd that, in an environment where the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion is under attack in Republican-held states, he could no longer support a policy that limits funding.
“We’ve seen state after state including Georgia passing extreme laws,” Biden said. “It’s clear that these folks are going to stop at nothing to get rid of Roe.”
“Circumstances have changed,” he said.
On Wednesday, his campaign issued a statement confirming that, unlike much of the rest of the field, Biden was not calling for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which dates to 1976, when Biden was a young senator.
Because of the amendment, poorer Americans reliant on Medicaid do not generally have access to abortion via federal assistance. The amendment allows for exceptions only in the case of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life.
Biden’s campaign told NBC News in a story published Wednesday that he would support repealing the amendment “if abortion avenues currently protected under Roe were threatened,” referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. But the campaign insisted he still supported the amendment.
Many Democratic primary candidates pounced on Biden’s support for the decades-old amendment, callingfor its repeal and drawing a stark contrast between him and the rest of the party.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was asked about Biden’s position during an MSNBC town hall on Wednesday night, she described it as an issue of inequality, because of the impact of the amendment on low-income women on Medicaid.
Lawmakers and liberal activists, including a host of abortion rights groups that are highly influential in the Democratic primaries, balked at the news that Biden would maintain his support for the ban.
“It seemed like he heard a lot of feedback and opened his mind to thinking about this in a different way,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in an interview after Biden announced his new position.
Hogue declined to discuss any conversations she had with Biden or his campaign, although she suggested that her group and others had mounted an effort to change his mind.
“We and our members were among a number of stakeholders the campaign heard from yesterday,” she said. “And we’re grateful that they listened.”
On Twitter, Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen wrote, “Happy to see Joe Biden embrace what we have long known to be true: Hyde blocks people — particularly women of color and women with low incomes — from accessing safe, legal abortion care.”
Biden’s challengers in the presidential race likewise issued statements after his reversal, in variously crafted critiques.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told MSNBC in an interview shortly after Biden’s reversal that she was “not surprised” by it.
“I think it would have been a big problem for him,” she said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a tart rebuke, without using Biden’s name.
“I opposed the Hyde Amendment in 1993. I oppose it today. I will never back down,” he tweeted.
After Biden announced his change of view, his campaign released a statement reaffirming “that he supports Roe and the right to choose. And, he will continue to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own personal decisions about her health care.”
Abortion rights have long been a galvanizing issue for some Democrats — but a sense of urgency has grown more acute as several Republican governors have signed strict abortion bans into law.
Biden supported the Hyde Amendment each time it came up during his years in the Senate, as most lawmakers did.
A fight over adding the amendment’s language to the Affordable Care Act in 2010 almost derailed its passage, until Democrats cut a deal forbidding the use of any government health-care subsidies to cover abortion. Only in recent years have Democrats begun to mount a serious opposition campaign against the funding ban.
In the beginning weeks of his campaign, Biden has differed from many in his party on such issues as trade and health care as he navigates a party that has moved significantly to the left since his last presidential campaign in 2008. At the same time, he has been resolute about campaigning as a centrist to help lure back former Democrats who sided with President Trump.
The abortion funding dispute added to an already rocky week for his campaign, as it earlier confronted criticism for lifting sentences for policy papers from other sources.
Michael Scherer and Matt Viser contributed to this story.