On Friday, when President Biden released a statement on the Supreme Court’s decision to keep in place a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks while providers proceed with a legal challenge, some reproductive rights activists noted an omission: the word “abortion.”
It’s a trend activists say has characterized a lot the administration’s communications about reproductive rights. The evasion in Biden’s statements has been so noticeable that the abortion rights organization We Testify made a website called “Did Biden Say Abortion Yet?” (Their answer, so far, is “barely.”)
When a reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki in May about the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case out of Mississippi challenging Roe v. Wade, she used the words “right to health care,” “right to choose,” “access,” “reproductive health care” and “Roe” without uttering “abortion.”
White House spokesman Chris Meagher pointed to three press briefings last week in which Psaki used the word. On Wednesday, Psaki said: “As we’ve outlined before and as [Biden has] mentioned before, he’s committed to working with Congress to codify the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, as protected by Roe and subsequent Supreme Court precedent.”
But now that the Supreme Court seems poised to uphold the Mississippi law that would undermine Roe, abortion rights activists say they fear Biden’s lack of speaking frankly about abortion is a sign that he is not prepared to fully protect reproductive rights at a pivotal moment.
“The bare minimum that literally costs nothing would be to talk about it, and he won’t do that. So how am I supposed to have faith that he’s going to do anything else when he won’t do the thing that’s free?” asked Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, which works to expand the leadership and representation of people who have abortions.
Biden, who speaks often about his Catholic faith, has long appeared to walk a tightrope on the issue of abortion. In his 2007 memoir, he described his views by saying: “My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my view on the rest of society.” In 1981, as a senator, Biden supported a conservative drive for a constitutional amendment that would let states overturn Roe, though he then opposed it the following year. Biden also supported the Hyde Amendment for decades, legislation that prohibits the use of government funds for most abortions for people on Medicaid. He reversed his position in 2019, when he was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination against many candidates who voiced their support for overturning Hyde.
In avoiding the word abortion, some experts say, Biden might be trying to reflect the American public’s complicated feelings about the procedure.
Polls show that most Americans favor upholding Roe v. Wade, with a November Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that 27 percent of Americans support overturning the law. Seventy-five percent of respondents, meanwhile, said a woman’s decision about having an abortion should be left to the woman and her doctor. The Texas law is also unpopular nationally, with two-thirds of Americans saying the Supreme Court should overturn it.
When it comes to views on the morality of abortion, however, Americans are evenly divided, with 47 percent saying it is morally acceptable and 46 percent saying it is not, according to a June Gallup poll. Americans are similarly split when it comes to personally identifying as “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life.” They’re also less likely to unequivocally support abortion (32 percent) than to support it “under certain circumstances” (48 percent).
“Within the Democratic coalition, there are people who think abortion is a positive, transformative good that’s benefited them in fundamental ways, and you have people who think abortion is a right but that it’s a tragedy,” Ziegler said. “If your instinct is to offend the least number of people, which sometimes is [Biden’s] instinct, then there’s probably a conviction, right or wrong, that less is more when it comes to what you say about abortion.”
Ziegler said that political calculus, however, may be changing.
“If the Supreme Court overrules Roe, then he may have to change his tune,” Ziegler said. “If people are really angry and want to talk about it directly, then pussyfooting around it may not resonate or may offend people.”
We Testify’s Bracey Sherman said for her, that line has already been crossed.
“If you want to continue to walk around and say that you’re a pro-choice president you need to start acting like it, and the fact that he has been in office for 328 days and he has not addressed the nation on this issue is wild to me,” she said.
Support for legal abortion is particularly high among the voters who elected Biden, with 80 percent of Democratic voters saying it should be legal in all or most cases, and 63 percent of Republicans saying it should be illegal in all or most cases.
For Bracey Sherman, these trends are part of why Biden needs to take an explicit stand on support for abortion rights.
“Abortion access is a racial justice and an economic justice issue,” Bracey Sherman said. “If you can’t afford to decide if, when and how to grow your family then you also can’t earn a thriving wage.”