WASHINGTON – The steps President Joe Biden took early in his administration to reverse his predecessor’s policies on reproductive health issues drew howls from abortion opponents.
Biden, whose positions on abortion issues have evolved over the years, still faced some skepticism from abortion rights advocates about his commitment to their cause. One sign had been the administration’s avoidance of the word “abortion” in favor of more generic phrases such as “reproductive health” and “women’s health access.”
Biden faces his biggest test of that commitment in his response to a new Texas law that bans the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy – and is likely to be copied by other GOP-led states.
Biden did, for the first time since his inauguration, use the word “abortion” in his statements condemning the law, which the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect last week. He called the law “almost un-American” for its reliance on private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in "aiding and abetting" abortions.
His team met Friday with women’s rights and reproductive health leaders to discuss how to fight the statute.
Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, said that although she believes Biden supports reproductive rights, he needs to do more – especially from the bully pulpit.
“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary action,” she said, “and it's time for him to demonstrate that in a much bigger way.”
Activists want the administration to embrace actions such as suing Texas, meeting with Texas women affected by the law, easing restrictions on medication abortion and endorsing legislation in the House that would codify the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights in 1973.
The Texas law increases pressure on Biden to back changes to the filibuster and to the makeup of the Supreme Court.
"I think they were getting the full picture of the urgency and responding appropriately," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who attended the meeting with White House officials.
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Biden, an observant Catholic, has long wrestled with the issue as the Democratic Party’s unanimity on abortion rights increased.
Last year, Biden reversed his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions.
Soon after taking office, Biden allowed federal funds to flow again to international groups that provide or refer patients for abortion services and moved to undo restrictions on U.S. clinics that provide abortion counseling or services. His first budget request did not include the Hyde Amendment.
Biden, who said he personally opposes abortion, frames his views in the context of one of his top priorities: creating a more equitable society for people of color and other marginalized groups.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is working on a document that could rebuke Catholic politicians for receiving Communion if they support abortion rights.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sparred last week with a reporter from EWTN Global Catholic Network. The reporter asked how Biden can support abortion when "his own Catholic faith teaches that abortion is morally wrong."
“Well, he believes that it's a woman's right, it's a woman's body, and it's her choice,” Psaki told the male reporter. ”I know you've never faced those choices, nor have you ever been pregnant. But for women out there who have faced those choices, this is an incredibly difficult thing.”
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The next day, White House officials met virtually with 11 leaders of women’s rights and reproductive health organizations.
Advocates hopeful, but details remain unclear
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said she was pleased that the administration committed to using every tool at its disposal to respond to the Texas law.
“And that was the thrust of the meeting,” Goss Graves said. “What does that mean in practice, in this time of both constitutional crisis and a literal public health emergency on the ground where people who need care are at risk of not getting it?”
The answer is unclear.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Monday that the Justice Department will enforce a 1994 law prohibiting threats, physical obstruction or property damage to try to prevent someone from seeking or providing reproductive health services at a clinic.
He didn’t detail how that would work. Psaki said Wednesday the Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services are still evaluating their options.
Goss Graves said she expects “ongoing updates.”
“We will be watching closely to ensure that becomes a reality,” she said. “This is one of those moments where people will be asking, ‘What side of history were we on? Where were our leaders when there was this effort to totally undermine our access to care and our fundamentally protected rights?’”
Northup, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, urged the Justice Department to take every possible action, including suing Texas, enjoining the law and considering criminal prosecutions for the deprivation of civil rights.
“I have full confidence that they will move as soon as they can,” she said.
Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, hopes Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will go to Texas to talk with patients “to understand what is actually happening on the impact of the law.”
Planned Parenthood is pushing the administration to get behind the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation that would block restrictions on reproductive health services that House Democrats plan to bring to the floor this month.
"We shared our thoughts with the administration on Friday,” McGill Johnson said. “All of these things are in conversation.”
Planned Parenthood and others called for the administration to lift the FDA’s restrictions on Mifepristone, a drug used to end early pregnancies. Psaki said Wednesday that’s “a decision that the FDA has to make on their own, based on science.”
Abolish the filibuster? Expand the court?
Though Biden supports codifying Roe v. Wade, Psaki demurred when asked if he backs the Women’s Health Protection Act as the way to do it.
“We’re still looking at whether that’s a vehicle we’re going to support,” she said Wednesday.
The bigger hurdle for legislative actions is the Senate, where Democrats don’t have enough votes to block a filibuster. That intensifies the pressure Biden already faced – over voting rights and other issues – to support changes to the filibuster.
The Texas law adds significance to the commission Biden tasked with reviewing the structure and operation of the Supreme Court by early October.
“In the long term, the best way to protect women’s rights is to add at least two justices to the Supreme Court,” Dan Pfeiffer, a top aide in the Obama administration, wrote in The Message Box newsletter.
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Expanding the court and abolishing the filibuster are among the priorities for Tamika Middleton, deputy director of the Women’s March who was not a participant in Friday's White House meeting.
The group has worked with dozens of organizations to mobilize a show of support for abortion rights before the Supreme Court returns in the fall. The court signaled its readiness to take another look at abortion rulings by agreeing to consider Mississippi’s attempt to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The Texas law added urgency.
“We knew that we needed to mobilize more quickly,” Middleton said of marches planned for Oct. 2 in every state.
The response from the administration, she said, has not been strong enough to deter other states from passing similar laws.
“This is an emergency moment,” she said. “We have to take clear and immediate and strong action.”
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify who was not at the White House meeting, said the administration's actions should start with Biden talking openly about abortions.
Bracey Sherman, whose group helps people who’ve had abortions share their stories, created a website tracking how long it took Biden to use the word. She found it “absolutely wild” that even the presidential statement recognizing the 48th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision did not use it.
“If he truly believes that abortion access is a human right and that it's a constitutionally protected service, then he should be able to come out and address the country and talk about that, talk about his values, why, as a Catholic man, he believes that people should have access to abortions,” Bracey Sherman said. “How can you advocate for something without talking about it?”
Asked last week about Biden’s seeming reluctance to use the word until the Texas law went into effect, Psaki declined to say whether that was deliberate.
Her response was an acknowledgment that abortion rights activists are paying close attention to the president’s response.
“I think the most important value people should look at is what the president does in his actions and what he fights for,” she said. “And I don't think I'm going to have any other assessment beyond that.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion rights groups want bigger response from Biden to Texas law