Biden sets off storm for supporting abortion funding ban

By Alice Miranda Ollstein

Presidential front-runner Joe Biden faced swift and fierce backlash from fellow Democrats Wednesday after his campaign confirmed that he supports a four-decade-old ban on federal funding for abortion that much of his party has vowed to overturn.

Biden's support of the Hyde Amendment, which is renewed annually through congressional spending bills, underscores a generational and cultural divide that's separating the former vice president from the rest of the 2020 Democratic field.

Not only is he the only Democrat in the field to openly declare support for the amendment, several of his opponents have released detailed plans to roll back the funding ban and expand access to abortion for low-income women.

Biden's campaign on Wednesday confirmed his position to NBC News, adding that he would be open to repealing Hyde if abortion options currently protected under Roe v. Wade were threatened. The disclosure came after the American Civil Liberties Union promoted an exchange between one of its members and Biden in South Carolina during which he appeared to commit to rolling back the prohibition.

Biden's campaign said on Wednesday that he misheard the ACLU activist's question and that his previous position supporting the Hyde amendment has not changed.

"The Hyde Amendment does not prevent organizations in the U.S. that provide lifesaving health care services for women from receiving the federal funding they need," Biden's campaign told POLITICO. "But given the current draconian attempts to limit access to abortion, if avenues for women to access their protected rights under Roe V Wade are closed, he would be open to repeal."

Many of Biden’s Democratic primary rivals reiterated Wednesday that they would work to repeal the Hyde Amendment if elected. And abortion-rights groups slammed Biden’s stance as unacceptable.

“We strongly encourage Joe Biden to speak to the people whose lives are impacted by this discriminatory policy and reevaluate his position,” said Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “To support the Hyde Amendment is to block people — particularly women of color and women with low incomes — from accessing safe, legal abortion.”

Prominent liberals in Congress such as Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) were visibly taken aback when asked about Biden's stand, though they held off criticizing Biden directly.

"This is a constitutional right for women to be able to access abortions and be able to make decisions about their own bodies, and the things that get in the way of that — particularly for low-income women, for rural women, for women who live in states where those rights have been trampled on — is a serious issue for the entire country," Jayapal said. "I hope our presidential candidate will be bold about recognizing that.”

Since it was enacted in 1976, the Hyde Amendment has banned federal funding for abortions in most circumstances, including for low-income women enrolled in Medicaid. As a senator from Delaware, Biden opposed early efforts to add exemptions for victims of rape or incest. He also voted in 1981 for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

At that time, Biden was one of many staunch anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. Almost all have since disappeared as the party has moved to the left on reproductive rights, with the official party platform endorsing the repeal of Hyde in 2016. Biden's campaign has worked to emphasize that he has changed, as well.

"Joe Biden firmly believes that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and should not be overturned," a spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO, pointing to his votes against Supreme Court nominees opposed to abortion such as John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork.

But Biden's continued embrace of the Hyde Amendment sets him apart going into 2020.

A Democratic bill introduced this year to repeal the Hyde Amendment has nearly 130 cosponsors in the House and almost two dozen in the Senate, including Democratic presidential aspirants Rep. Seth Moulton and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders’ "Medicare for All" bill, which many 2020 Democratic candidates have endorsed, would fully cover the cost of all reproductive health care, including abortion.

“I am absolutely opposed to the idea that a woman is not going to have an ability to exercise her choice based on how much money she's got,” Harris said Wednesday, speaking of the Hyde Amendment.

Though public opinion is divided on taxpayer funding of abortions, progressives said the party's standard bearer needs to stand up for abortion access regardless of the political consequences.

“Abortion is health care,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO when asked about Biden’s support for Hyde. “I can understand the difficulty of getting rid of the Hyde Amendment, politically. But I don’t think it should be our stance or belief to maintain it.”

Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.