Harris, Biden Deliver Fiery Message on Abortion Rights

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks, during a campaign event focusing on abortion rights at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, in Manassas, Virginia, U.S., January 23, 2024.

BIG BEND, Wis. – Vice President Kamala Harris framed the fight for abortion access in searing terms in this battleground state Monday afternoon, highlighting what she called “the horrific reality that women are facing every single day” since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade 18 months ago.

Harris left little doubt that her remarks were aimed in large part at former president Donald Trump. “As we face this crisis and as we are clear-eyed about the harm, let us also understand who is responsible, shall we?” she said. “The former president handpicked three Supreme Court justices because he intended for them to overturn Roe. He intended for them to take away your freedoms. And it is a decision he brags about.”

Harris’s remarks on the 51st anniversary of the decision in Roe, the Supreme Court case granting a constitutional right to an abortion, came as the Biden administration is trying to mobilize the Democratic base around the fight for reproductive freedom. Her appearance was part of a full-court press on abortion rights being unleashed by the Biden team this week, as the administration announced new steps Monday intended to ensure access to contraception, abortion medication and emergency abortions at hospitals.

President Biden, Harris and their spouses will attend a joint campaign rally on Tuesday focused on abortion access. Biden on Monday convened two dozen senior officials in the White House for a meeting of his reproductive health task force, where he was joined by several physicians who have practiced in states with abortion bans. The Biden campaign also posted an online ad Monday that alternates clips of Trump boasting of his role in overturning Roe with testimonials from women whose complicated pregnancies were made more traumatic due to state restrictions on abortion.

Biden used brief remarks at the beginning of the White House meeting to blast, what he called, “outrageous” policies that punish doctors and pregnant women for abortions. He called out Republican state legislators for enacting abortion restrictions on the state level and blasted GOP members of Congress for putting forward abortion restrictions that would apply nationwide.

“Even if you live in a state where the extremist Republicans are not running the show, your right to choose, your right to privacy would still be at risk” under federal abortion laws proposed by the GOP, he said. “Folks, this is what it looks like when the right to privacy is under attack.”

In addition to doctors impacted by state restrictions on abortion, the meeting featured a wide range of high-ranking officials across Biden’s Cabinet and government, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

While Trump has not called for a nationwide abortion ban, and has shied away from the more forceful rhetoric on abortion embraced by some Republican leaders, he has been quick to take credit for the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe, since it came only after he cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court by appointing three justices to the nine-member bench.

“For 54 years, they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it,” he said at a Fox News town hall this month. “I’m proud to have done it.”

The onslaught by the Biden team is notable in part because the president personally has shown discomfort when it comes to offering a full-throated embrace of abortion rights, an area where his private faith as a Catholic may be at odds with Democrats’ public position.

As the general election campaign draws nearer, it is not yet clear whether Biden will begin speaking more forcefully and frequently about the issue, or if he will leave much of the argument to surrogates and supporters. Biden only briefly mentioned the word “abortion” during his remarks Monday, making sure to stipulate that he was not pushing for “abortion on demand,” but for codifying the protections in Roe v. Wade.

On Monday, Harris was, in many ways, leading the charge. She warned that the Supreme Court’s decision – and efforts across the country to further restrict access to abortions – was part of a more sweeping erosion of rights pushed by Republicans.

“In America, freedom is not to be given. It is not to be bestowed. It is ours by right,” she told a cheering crowd gathered at a union building in a suburb of Milwaukee. “And that includes the freedom to make decisions about one’s own body – not the government telling you what to do.”

Harris singled out a proposal by Wisconsin’s Republicans to ban abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor has already said he will veto the bill. But Harris said the effort was a pattern to further restrict the rights of women – including an hour’s drive from where she spoke.

“Extremists aren’t done,” she said. “This afternoon in the Wisconsin legislature, extremists will hold a hearing on a bill that bans abortion with no exception for rape or incest. And in Congress they are trying to pass a national abortion ban.”

Biden, in contrast, was trying to shore up access to abortion, she said.

Eighteen months after the Supreme Court overruled Roe, Democrats see the issue as central to Biden’s reelection effort. Since the decision in Dobbs decreed that abortion rights should be left to the states, Democrats have won a string of electoral victories, fueling the party’s hopes that the abortion issue will propel Biden to reelection despite his low approval ratings.

Central to that endeavor is aiming Democrats’ animus at the politicians they warned will further restrict rights, with Trump at the top of the list.

As part of its push for reproductive rights, the Biden administration Monday announced several policy moves intended to expand access to contraception.

Federal agencies are issuing guidance that would make no-cost contraceptives more available under the Affordable Care Act and take similar actions to expand contraception access for federal employees. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra also plans to send a letter to health insurers instructing them of their obligation to provide no-cost contraceptives, according to the White House.

The federal health department also announced a new team dedicated to enforcing its interpretation of a law, known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA, which the Biden administration has said requires hospitals to provide emergency abortions nationwide, including in the 21 states where the procedure is limited or banned.

“Where abortion has been on the ballot, the American people have overwhelmingly voted to protect reproductive freedom,” Jennifer Klein, director of the White House’s Gender Policy Council, told reporters last week, citing states such as Kansas and Ohio where voters last year sided with measures protecting abortion rights.

The moves highlight Biden’s effort to shore up support among key allies, who have called for the White House to take stronger action to boost abortion access. Abortion rights advocates have been frustrated with the administration’s implementation of the emergency-care law, citing a case in which federal officials did not penalize an Oklahoma hospital that denied an emergency abortion to a woman with a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication.

Biden officials have insisted that the president is the nation’s strongest defender of abortion rights, contrasting his efforts with Republicans who are attempting to replace him. And 58 percent of all voters, including about 1 in 5 Republicans, said they trust Democrats more than Republicans on abortion, according to a November poll conducted by KFF, a health policy organization.

Trump’s staunch supporters in the antiabortion movement have begun to envision how he would carry out their agenda, such as enacting new restrictions on abortion pills. However, Trump has said that Republicans should consider moderating their focus on abortion bans. “You have to win elections,” he said at the town hall.

Biden officials have said they are continuing to work with Congress to enact legislation that would provide a national right to abortion. But it would probably be difficult to get the 60 Senate votes needed to guarantee abortion rights across the country – or conversely, as many conservatives want, to ban abortions altogether.

“As we’ve been really clear, the president, the vice president, everyone in the administration, the number one priority for all of us is working to pass a federal law that will restore the protections that were lost when Roe was overturned,” Klein told reporters last week.

Little evidence exists of common ground on Capitol Hill. House and Senate Republicans have made repeated efforts to target abortion access, including introducing legislation last week that would implement a 50 percent tax credit for donations made to crisis pregnancy centers, which aim to dissuade women from having abortions.

“Despite what the radical pro-abortion left wants us to believe, the pro-life movement is also a pro-woman movement with a long history of empowering women during pregnancy and after,” Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), who co-authored the legislation, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats last week held an event where they vowed to continue combating Republicans’ antiabortion legislation.

“This isn’t a PR problem for women – it is a living hell and a personal nightmare,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.