It was difficult to not get swept up in the emotion of yesterday’s inauguration. The youngest inaugural poet urged us to find the courage to be the light. Former Sen. Kamala Harris shattered multiple glass ceilings when she became the first woman, first Black person, and first Southeast Asian person to become vice president of the United States. J-Lo remixed “America the Beautiful” with “Let’s Get Loud” like some kind of musical savant. Americans’ Covid-19 stimulus checks were apparently spent on a grand firework display.
Two weeks removed from a deadly coup attempt, President Biden declared “Democracy prevailed!” and called for unity.
But a few hours later, the reality of politics revealed itself. In the first of what is promised to be many White House press briefings, newly-appointed Press Secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question from an evangelical news site, EWTN. The reporter asked what President Biden plans to do with the Mexico City Policy (also known as the Global Gag Rule, which blocks federal funding for non-governmental organizations that provide abortion, abortion counseling, or abortion referrals) and the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds from paying for abortion care in the United States.
“Well, I think we’ll have more to say on the Mexico City Policy in the coming days,“ Psaki said. “But I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that [Biden] is a devout Catholic, and somebody who attends church regularly.”
This was, for all intents and purposes, a question with an easy, straight-forward answer. President Biden is set to rescind the Mexico City Policy in the coming days, as has every Democratic president since its inception. And during his presidential campaign, Biden denounced the Hyde Amendment and called for it to be abolished. So by deliberately side-stepping the question and, instead, evoking Biden’s Catholic faith, the Biden/Harris administration kicked off their tenure by reinforcing abortion stigma, erroneously suggesting that Catholics do not have abortions. This also signaled to abortion patients that Biden’s quest for unity may very well come at the cost of their bodily autonomy.
A faux debate exists when it comes to abortion rights. While Republicans would like us all to believe that the country is divided on this so-called “issue,” the majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal. A reported one-third of Republicans support abortion, and in states that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, like Alabama, only 31% of voters support legislative attempts to ban abortion completely.
Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, those who are religious and those who are not, people who want kids and people who do not, all seek out abortion care at various times for various reasons. In fact, the majority of abortion patients already have at least one child at home. Catholics are just as likely to have abortions as non-Catholics, and in 2014 a reported 13% of abortion patients identified as evangelical Protestants.
Yet on Day One, Biden and his administration chose to reinforce the illusion of a dispute that simply does not exist. Abortion is a common outcome of reproduction. Abortion care is a common and safe medical procedure.
To assert his now-presidential support for access to abortion care will not draw some alienating line in the proverbial sand. Instead, it will reaffirm what the majority of Americans already know and believe: it’s a way to protect a vital type of health care many Americans can and do need.
Perhaps Biden’s troubling legislative history when it comes to reproductive justice and abortion rights is to blame, and it’s one he seems to be willing to carry into his long-awaited presidency. In 1973, he claimed Roe v Wade had “gone too far.” A year later, he told a reporter that a woman “shouldn’t have the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” In 1982, he voted in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow individual states to overturn Roe, claiming the difficult vote was a “product” of his Catholic “background.” Thankfully, the amendment failed.
In 2012, as vice president, Biden claimed the “government doesn’t have a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body.” Then, as a presidential candidate, Biden broke from the field Democratic presidential hopefuls and reaffirmed his support of the Hyde amendment, which disproportionately harms Black, Latinx, and poor people from receiving the abortion care they need and want. It was only after intense backlash that Biden reversed his position, denouncing Hyde and saying “If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code.”
Sure, a politician’s legislative perspective shifting over the span of a decades-long career is understandable. Hell, a politician flip-flopping in the span of a day, maybe two, is par for the partisan course. But Biden’s wavering support of unfettered abortion access is troubling at face value, especially when one considers the overarching goal of the Biden/Harris administration.
The gift he gives a fractured GOP in the name of bipartisanship is a detriment to the very people who gave Biden the presidency: Black women. If building the country in a unified way is of utmost importance, it is not beyond the pale for Biden to view the one in four women (as well as the trans and non-binary people) who have abortions as collatoral damage.
The majority of people who seek out abortion services are Black women. The majority of people who are harmed by the federal government’s refusal to allow funds to pay for abortion services are Black women. A sense of unity should not come at the cost of the most marginalized among us.
A Democratic president does not ensure the protection and expansion of abortion care. From 2010 to 2016, while Barack Obama was president and Joe Biden was vice president, more than 288 anti-aboriton laws were enacted. Yes, Trump’s departure from the White House was a sigh of relief to all of those who seek abortion services — and for those who provide it, protect it, and fund it — but Joe middle-of-the-road Biden is a far cry from the progressive leader many Democrats had hoped to elect. That is why we must hold the newly-appointed Biden administration to their word, regardless of how low the Trump administration left the bar. We must push them to be better than any previous administration. We must stay engaged, stay vigilant, and stay angry. And, apparently, we must start now.