Until last year, Joe Biden supported a law that restricted federal funding for abortion — and his flip-flop smacks of political expediency.
The Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case that threatens to further retrench already imperiled abortion rights in the U.S. Louisiana is fighting to uphold a law requiring doctors at abortion clinics to also have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Under the bogus guise of patient safety concerns — abortion is one of the safest common medical procedures — the law would make ever scarcer access to legal abortions in the state and, if sanctioned by the Supreme Court, the country.
Despite the fact that the court struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016, the presence of misogynist Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — both President Donald Trump appointments — on today’s conservative bench could see the established legal precedent rejected in favor of anti-abortion ideology. In restrictive states like Mississippi, medical abortions are already de facto inaccessible; now the reactionary dream of legally entrenching that inaccessibility — overturning Roe v. Wade — is closer to becoming a reality.
Joe Biden’s rise should concern anyone who believes that reproductive rights and choice are essential to social justice.
Abortion rights will likely not survive another term under Trump. Even under a Democratic president, the current makeup of the Supreme Court will continue to pose a grave threat. That is the bleak terrain in which voters who care about reproductive rights need to consider the Democratic presidential nominees. They must look for someone who offers an unwavering commitment to not only protect the right to abortion, but to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy a readily available option for all.
And that is what’s so concerning about the frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his record on abortion rights. He is worse than inconsistent — and his rise should concern anyone who believes that reproductive rights and choice are essential to social justice.
During a February Democratic primary debate, Biden aligned himself with the other candidates on stage by calling for the protection of abortion rights. Alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the former vice president said that if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe, he would put forward legislation to uphold the law’s protections.
“If they ruled it to be unconstitutional, I will send to the United States Congress, and it will pass I believe, a bill that legislates Roe v. Wade adjusted by Casey,” Biden said, referring to a later Supreme Court case that prohibited undue burdens on abortion rights. “It’s a woman’s right to do that. Period.”
That “period,” however, has for much of Biden’s career been a comma — a qualified and compromised support of abortion’s legality at best, and a commitment to limit funding for abortions at worse. Up until last summer, Biden supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion under programs like Medicaid, enforcing a hideous denial of affordable care to poor people.
One might generously frame Biden’s changing stance on abortion as a righteous journey, navigating his Catholic faith with a willingness to learn and change in the interest of women’s rights. As vice president, Biden actively worked to undermine reproductive rights by trying to cut mandated coverage for contraception from the Affordable Care Act.
His reversal on the Hyde Amendment last year, meanwhile, smacked of electoral expediency: On June 5, Biden’s campaign said that he continued to support the law. He received immediate censure from activists, other lawmakers, and his opponents for the Democratic nomination. The very next night, at a Democratic National Committee gala in Atlanta, Biden said he no longer supported the ban on federal funding for abortions.
Biden claimed that recent Republican anti-abortion efforts around the country prompted his change of position. But widespread abortion restriction laws have hacked away at abortion access for years — including throughout President Barack Obama’s tenure — and Biden’s support of the Hyde Amendment did not shift.
“I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” Biden later said, explaining his about-face. He had, however, managed to support such legislation for nearly a decade after the Center for Constitutional Rights reported in 2010 that, since the Hyde Amendment passed in 1976, more than a million women have been unable to afford abortions and had to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Of his many years supporting the dangerous and discriminatory law, Biden said he made “no apologies for the last position.”
Abortion is, of course, only one among a number of crucial issues on which Biden has a poor record, riddled with discriminatory positions; he worked with segregationists and helped bolster racist mass incarceration. Contrary to claims in his current campaign ads, he has argued for cuts to Social Security throughout much of his career. And, as I wrote last year, Biden’s pathetic excuse for an apology to Anita Hill was decades too late, insufficient, and transparently timed around the launch of his presidential campaign; it was further evidence that he will not address the power structures that enable patriarchal sexual abuse to prevail.
Biden’s supporters, meanwhile, highlight his record against sexual violence to parry allegations of misogynist behavior. He championed the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which introduced crucial provisions for domestic violence victims, like rape crisis centers, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and battered women’s shelters.
Biden should be commended for this. It should not be forgotten, however, that the Violence Against Women Act was tucked inside the pernicious 1994 crime bill, which he helped draft; support for the provisions on violence against women went a long way toward gaining liberal backing for the broader bill. In other words, even Biden’s proudest legacy when it comes to addressing sexual violence must be considered in the context of his efforts to bolster the violent, racist criminal justice system.
The former vice president’s very recent shift to support abortion access should be measured against his long history of compromise, and indeed complicity, with Republican agendas. A politician who treats such compromise as moral value in and of itself should not be trusted to fight hard for an issue on which he’s shown unacceptably wavering commitments. The risk to too many people’s lives, health, and well-being — particularly the risk to poor women of color — is too high to allow the decimation of abortion access to proceed. He would make an insufficient bulwark against the conservative anti-abortion tides.
What delineates robust from weak support for abortion rights is an understanding that the issue of abortion intersects with structural questions of economic and racial equality, health care access, and how society treats gestational labor. A promise to protect Roe is insufficient to defend abortion rights, which require abortion access to be meaningful. That sort of commitment seems unlikely to come from the man who, in 1973, said that the Supreme Court had gone “too far” in its Roe v. Wade ruling.