President Joe Biden’s campaign sharpened his messaging on abortion rights this week with several events and a policy blitz, framing the 2024 election as a choice between Democrats who want to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade and Republicans who would implement more extreme restrictions, including a national abortion ban. But for all its fiery rhetoric, the campaign’s proposals to contain the damage caused by the U.S. Supreme Court aren’t rising to meet the urgency of the moment.
At a task-force meeting at the White House on Monday, commemorating what would have been the 51st anniversary of Roe, Biden announced his administration’s new efforts around reproductive health care. That includes expanding access to affordable birth control, defending access to abortion medication before the U.S. Supreme Court, and creating a team dedicated to education around access to emergency abortion care at hospitals. Biden also denounced the deluge of anti-abortion restrictions passed by 21 states since the Court overturned Roe, saying, “These extreme laws have no place” in the United States.
Vice-President Kamala Harris was more pointed at a Monday rally in Wisconsin, a battleground state where abortion rights helped a liberal judge win the state’s Supreme Court race last spring. She called the current landscape, in which one in three women of reproductive age live in a state that bans abortion, a “health-care crisis” and described former president Donald Trump as its “architect.” Trump has openly bragged about nominating the three conservative justices who helped end the constitutional right to abortion. “For 54 years, they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it,” he said in a Fox interview earlier this month. “Nobody else was going to get that done but me, and we did it, and we did something that was a miracle.” Harris strongly condemned him. “Proud that women have been robbed of a fundamental freedom? Proud that doctors could be thrown in prison for caring for their patients?” she said. “That young women today have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers? How dare he.”
And yet the campaign has shied away from a more aggressive approach to clawing back abortion rights despite the overwhelming evidence — electoral and otherwise — that most Americans support them. The buck stops with Biden, who historically has struggled with the concept of abortion care, down to supporting policies in the past that advocates say have harmed abortion seekers. The president’s speeches this week were heavy on euphemisms such as “the right to choose” or “the right to privacy” rather than “the right to an abortion.” At one point, Biden said, in what appeared to be an ad-lib, that he supported Roe but not “abortion on demand” — a phrase ripped straight from the anti-abortion movement.
Abortion-rights advocates have long said that the floor set by Roe was never enough, and that now is the time to reimagine what abortion access could look like in the U.S. That the Biden campaign continues to beat the drum of “restoring” the 1973 decision shows its blind spots. “Today, in 2024 in America,” Biden said in his Monday speech, “women are turned away from emergency rooms, forced to travel hundreds of miles to get basic health care in another state that may have a different rule, forced to go to court to plead for help.” The reality is that those barriers already existed for large swaths of the country under Roe — just ask the one in ten patients who, as of 2020, had to travel out of state for care, or the minors who, both then and now, are forced to seek a judge’s permission in order to terminate a pregnancy.
While Biden and Harris put a heavy emphasis on “reproductive freedom” in their remarks, it’s telling that they repeatedly emphasized the horror of patients being denied abortion care in exceptional circumstances — such as a wanted yet nonviable pregnancy, or cases of rape or incest — over the otherwise mundane abortions that are now out of reach for millions, forever altering the course of their lives. Biden called such denials “an affront to women’s dignity” and “unconscionable” at a Tuesday rally in Virginia. The campaign also teamed up with women who sued Texas because they were denied abortion care after they developed severe and dangerous pregnancy complications, launching a TV ad featuring Dr. Austin Dennard, an OB/GYN who was forced to flee the state to terminate a nonviable pregnancy, and having Amanda Zuraswki, the case’s lead plaintiff who became septic after she was denied an emergency abortion, introduce the president at the Virginia rally. These women’s experiences are profoundly tragic and should have never happened in the first place. But they are not representative of the people most impacted by abortion bans: people of color, low-income patients, and young women. Calls for “reproductive freedom” ring hollow when the voices of the most marginalized among us who feel this health-care crisis the deepest aren’t uplifted too.
There’s also a disconnect between the threats to abortion access that Biden and Harris described and the actions the administration is taking to address them. “Extremists aren’t done,” Harris said Monday. “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.” That same day, anti-abortion lawmakers in Tennessee and Oklahoma also introduced legislation that would punish anyone who helps a minor obtain an abortion. Other than codifying Roe, which would hinge on Democrats winning back control of Congress, the policies put forward on Monday — including defending patients’ right to travel for abortion care and strengthening HIPAA protections for patients who terminate their pregnancy — aren’t enough to help abortion seekers overcome the formidable challenges they face. The campaign’s efforts feel disjointed in other ways: On Monday, Biden announced the creation of a new team to help hospitals comply with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. The act requires institutions that accept federal funds to offer stabilizing care to patients who arrive in an ER with an “emergency medical condition,” which the administration argues applies to abortion care regardless of state law. Yet in the fall, federal officials rejected the complaint of a 26-year-old woman who said an Oklahoma hospital denied her an emergency abortion and told her to wait in the parking lot until she became sick enough to get care for her nonviable pregnancy.
Voters have repeatedly shown they are ready to fight to protect and expand abortion rights after Dobbs. What they need now is for the Biden-Harris ticket to follow through on its stated commitment to reproductive freedom. The campaign could be pushing policies that cut closer to the heart of the issue: to make abortion pills available over the counter, to compel health insurers to cover abortion care, to decriminalize pregnancy outcomes. Simply positioning Democrats as the party of Roe is not enough.