As vice president, Joe Biden repeatedly sought to undermine the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, working in alliance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to push for a broad exemption that would have left millions of women without coverage.
Biden’s battle over contraception is a window into his approach to the politics of reproductive freedom, a function of an electoral worldview that centers working-class Catholic men over the interests of women. The issue has been causing his presidential campaign some discomfort — on Wednesday, Biden’s campaign clarified that he remains a supporter of the so-called Hyde Amendment, a provision that bars federal money from being used to fund reproductive health services. Biden had recently told an activist with the American Civil Liberties Union that he opposed the amendment, and wanted to see it repealed.
On contraception, according to contemporaneous reporting and sources involved with the internal debate, Biden had argued that if the regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act were going to mandate coverage, it would have angered white, male, Catholic voters, and threatened Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. Biden’s main ally in the internal fight over contraception was chief of staff William Daly; both men are Catholic.
Opposing Biden was a faction of mostly women advisers, joined by some men, who argued that Biden had both the policy and the politics wrong. On policy, they noted that if his broad exemption went into effect, upwards of 6 million women who happened to be employed by religious-affiliated organizations would lose contraception coverage. The politics were just as bad, they argued, given that women were increasingly becoming central to the party’s success. To turn on them on the issue of access to birth control — embracing a fringe position not even adopted by most Catholics who aren’t bishops — would put that support at risk.
Biden has long said that he is personally opposed to abortion, but supports the legal right. His support of Roe v. Wade has not always been full-throated.
“When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother,” Biden said in a June 1974 article. “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
Because Biden’s anti-Roe comments came so long ago — more than four decades — some have argued they are of little value in gauging his current politics. But his battle against contraception, and his unwillingness to join the bulk of the Democratic field and call for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, puts him dramatically out of step with today’s party.
Biden is so out of step, in fact, that when he was shown polling data during the contraception fight, he dismissed it as inaccurate. He has a view of the American electorate’s politics on abortion that can’t be influenced by new facts. Jake Tapper, then reporting for ABC News, reported in February 2012:
The two sides couldn’t even agree about what they were debating. In the fall, [Planned Parenthood head Cecile] Richards brought in polling indicating that the American people overwhelmingly supported the birth control benefit in health insurance. She also highlighted statistics showing the overwhelming use of birth control.
The Vice President and others argued that this wouldn’t be seen as an issue of contraception — it would be seen as an issue of religious liberty. They questioned the polling of the rule advocates, arguing that it didn’t explain the issue in full, it ignored the question of what religious groups should have to pay for. And they argued that women voters for whom this was an important issue weren’t likely to vote for Mitt Romney, who has drawn a strong anti-abortion line as a presidential candidate, saying he would end federal funding to Planned Parenthood and supporting a “personhood” amendment that defines life as beginning at the moment of fertilization.
Similarly, Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev reported, “Vice President Joe Biden and then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley, also Catholics, warned that the mandate would be seen as a government intrusion on religious institutions. Even moderate Catholic voters in battleground states might be alienated, they warned, according to the people familiar with the discussions.”
It was ultimately public anger that led to Biden and Daley’s defeat on the issue. On January 31, 2012, as the administration was finalizing its policy, it was reported that Susan G. Komen for the Cure had cut its funding of Planned Parenthood, in a push led by abortion foe Karen Handel. The fury over the decision stunned the organization, which backtracked and apologized within a week, as Planned Parenthood raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from angered supporters of abortion rights. “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” Komen said in a statement on February 3, 2012.
The White House watched the affair unfold closely, and the blowback punctured the mythology that there is no real public support for abortion rights. It also sent a signal that if the White House backtracked on access to contraception, it could expect a livid response. The exemption that was ultimately granted, on February 10, was a very narrow one, frustrating the bishops.
In his vice presidential debate with Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, Biden attempted to portray it as a broad exemption. “No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact,” Biden said in the debate.
In a rare public disagreement with Biden, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops shot back with a statement, accurately saying that Biden’s claim was “not a fact.” Indeed, many religious-affiliated entities that had hoped to win an exemption, and which had Biden’s support inside the White House, had failed. But with Biden now a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, they may get another shot at denying access to contraception to their employees.