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Advocates are demanding that the White House and Democrats develop an immediate strategy for defending abortion rights with potentially only weeks remaining before the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade.
Frustration among activists was palpable this week after a vote to advance a long-shot bill to codify Roe’s protections failed to garner even 50 votes in the Democratic-held Senate. Outside groups say the ensuing calls by President Biden and members of his party to elect more pro-choice candidates in the upcoming midterm elections ring hollow and fail to grasp the urgency of the moment.
“Just saying, ‘We just need you to vote’ is not a solution,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, head of the group We Testify, which represents women who have had abortions. “This idea of ‘Just hang on until November’ is not realistic for keeping the clinics open and making sure that they’re able to keep their rent space, that they’re able to keep their staffs employed.”
Abortion rights advocates are bewildered by the Biden administration’s seeming lack of preparation for Roe’s likely impending demise, despite widespread consensus that the landmark 1973 decision has been in danger under the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
A leaked draft opinion striking down Roe, authored by Justice Samuel Alito and reportedly backed by at least four other conservative justices, would strip away the constitutional right to abortion and hand virtually unfettered authority to states to regulate the procedure.
“What Alito’s decision brought to us was not a particular surprise,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University. “It’s really surprising, and somewhat disappointing, that the White House appeared flat-footed and didn’t come right out of the box with a plan. So they’re leading from behind now. They’re really reacting rather than being proactive.”
According to the abortion rights advocacy group Guttmacher Institute, 22 states would be certain to attempt to ban abortion as quickly as possible. Among those, 13 have trigger laws already in place, designed to take effect automatically or by quick state action if Roe no longer applies.
The Supreme Court confirmed the authenticity of the draft opinion, published by Politico on May 3, but cautioned that its contents and the justices’ votes were subject to change prior to the publication of a final decision.
In response to the leak, Biden ordered the Gender Policy Council and the White House counsel’s office to develop a response plan. But the administration has declined to provide details until after the final ruling drops, which is expected by late June.
Meanwhile, Biden has emphasized his view that a right to abortion is fundamental and repeatedly joined Democrats in calling on voters to send more pro-abortion rights lawmakers to Washington in the November elections.
Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, said the party is planning an aggressive messaging campaign, to include protests and other public events, designed to highlight the practical ramifications if Roe is overturned.
Yet Clark also acknowledged that Democrats, without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, are essentially powerless to protect abortion rights at the federal level. The issue rests with voters, she said, who will decide in November which party controls the House and Senate — and by what margins.
“There’s a lot at stake, and I think the answer’s going to be at the ballot box,” she said. “Let’s be clear: a majority in the Senate is 60 votes, and we don’t have that. So what we need is a majority that is going to support over half of the country and their right to make the most private and intimate decisions on their own.”
John LaBombard, senior vice president at Rokk, a bipartisan public affairs firm, and former communications director to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), applauded the White House’s messaging as “spot on.”
“Effectively strategizing for anything, including this critical goal of protecting women’s rights to make their health care decisions, starts with realizing the reality that we’re in,” he said. “Successfully electing pro-choice leaders in the states and districts that matter to majorities … is the only way forward. And that’s hard, it’s a long process.”
But for many, the White House’s reluctance to provide specifics points to a lack of candor by the administration over the weighty stakes of eliminating a constitutional right that for nearly five decades has guaranteed abortion access nationwide.
“The Biden administration’s options are very limited,” said Gostin, of Georgetown. “But he should be out front talking about that rather than just pretending that there’s going to be some bold move.”
“I think the feeling of despair has a certain amount of justification to it,” he added. “And I think setting up a new task force or electing pro-choice Democrats is a very weak and almost self-serving response to people’s pain and anger.”
Gostin said the White House should focus on what he called “winnable battles.” He suggested that Biden lean on administrative agencies to study the physical and mental harm associated with curtailed abortion access, make medication abortion more widely available across state lines and prepare to challenge restrictive state abortion laws in court.
Some activists have faulted Biden for not using the presidential bully pulpit to advocate more forcefully for abortion rights. But for Biden, a practicing Catholic, his attempts over a lengthy political career to balance faith with his support for abortion access have resulted in a fraught relationship with the issue.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to answer directly when asked on Friday if Biden would meet with activists, emphasizing that support for maintaining Roe’s protections has mainstream appeal that reaches beyond abortion rights advocates.
But We Testify’s Sherman said an audience with Biden at the White House could go to great lengths to elevate and humanize the fight for abortion rights. She cited a 1996 meeting then-President Clinton held with activists in the Oval Office as having sent a strong message of support.
“There’s so much that [Biden] could do that is free, that does not need budgetary approval, does not need an act of Congress, does not need anything other than him using his own mouth to talk about why every single person in this country loves someone who’s had an abortion and what his plan is to show up,” she said.
— Mike Lillis contributed to this report