As President Joe Biden prepares to give his first State of the Union address amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he faces a number of conflicts within his own party back at home—from battles over COVID-19 rules to what to do about rising inflation. One of these internal battles involves the question of access to abortion.Pro-lifers claim that America is currently facing its worst crisis regarding abortion rights since the 1950s. This means the President needs to pay closer attention to Tuesday’s issue as he determines his priorities.
“The urgency of this moment really demands it from the President and from the Biden administration writ large,” says Morgan Hopkins, political strategies director at abortion rights group All* Above All. “We need creative and bold solutions that will address the realities of what people across the country are facing.”
It is unlikely that abortion rights supporters will get all they desire. Biden While he campaigned for reproductive rights protection, progressive groups claim they are disappointed that he does not seem comfortable talking about the topic and that his Administration has yet explore any options that would allow people to access abortion right now. The President’s hesitancy, they say, is mismatched with this political and judicial moment, in which access to abortion hangs in the balance.
The The Supreme Court is considering whether to decide in this spring’s case, or to overturn the 1973 landmark decision. Roe V. WadeThe state of Texas, where abortion is legalized nationwide. On Tuesday, Texas will mark six months since it successfully banned abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. It was the first state in America to do so. Roe. Other states are currently following Texas’ lead or passing other restrictions on abortion.
Abortion rights advocates, who cheered Biden’s election after four years of Donald Trump, say they appreciate that the Administration has unwound some of Trump’s policies including the restoring funding for reproductive health programs abroad and removing restrictions on family planning programs at home. But, they say, in this pitched political moment, Biden has an additional obligation to sound the alarm—and to signal that he is ready to buttress reproductive rights in what may soon be a post-Roe world.
“Depending on where you live right now, getting an abortion is next to impossible,” Hopkins says. “So we really need the whole-of-government approach that they’ve pledged.”
Biden’s evolving position on abortion
Biden was a 2020 candidate for codifying Roe vs. WadeHe signed the law. His own record is mixed on abortion. In 1973, when he was elected to the Senate, An amendment was voted in favor that would have allowed states to overturn the Supreme Court decision, saying at the time that he thought the justices went “too far” on abortion rights. He supported for many years the Congressional ban against federal funding of abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment. This prevents individuals on Medicaid and government-funded health plans from being covered for all abortions. Biden, under pressure from pro-abortion rights activists, retracted his support for this ban during the Democratic primary season 2019.
Biden, who is also a Catholic, does not feel comfortable talking about abortion. He often avoids mentioning the topic directly, opting instead for phrases such as “a woman’s constitutional right,” or “access to reproductive health care.” Biden did not use the word “abortion” until 224 days into his presidency, when it appeared in two written statements responding to the Texas abortion ban, according to a count by Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, a group that aims to share the stories of people who’ve had abortions. The President also included the word “abortion” in a tweet on the Texas law that day, but, to Bracey Sherman’s knowledge, he has not ever said “abortion” in oral remarks.
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Recently, a coalition representing more than 120 organizations specializing in reproductive rights signed an agreement open letterBiden asking him to speak out more in support of abortion rights at the State of the Union Address. “It’s extremely disappointing,” says Bracey Sherman, whose organization signed onto the letter. “We have a President of the United States who says that he is pro-choice and as he says, supports Roe V. Wade, but will not use the word ‘abortion.’ That is spreading stigma. That is actually telling people who have abortions that he may or may not have our back—he’s not actually going to give us the full throated support that we need.”
The White House declined to comment on the record, but pointed to the three statements including the word abortion, to the Administration’s record of undoing Trump’s restrictions on abortion, and to the lawsuit the Justice Department filed against Texas over its abortion ban, among other actions.
The Biden Administration has taken steps to undo the Trump Administration’s anti-abortion policies. Biden rescinded Mexico City Policy on Jan. 28, 2021. This prohibits U.S.-funded organizations from offering abortions and counseling. In October, he also reversed a Trump-era rule which barred U.S. healthcare providers from federal funding under Title X if they discuss abortion with patients.
Biden also dropped the Hyde Amendment from his presidential budget proposal and has announced his support for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect the right to abortion in federal law. After Texas’ six-week abortion ban took effect in September, the Justice Department sued the state and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave grants to help Texas clinics expand emergency contraception and family planning services. According to the Food and Drug Administration, December saw it loosening regulations on abortion pills so that people could receive them mail-side. And in January, HHS announced a task force on “reproductive healthcare access.”
TIME spoke to many abortion rights activists, who said that they were happy to hear about these steps and pointed out how the Administration is taking strong action to ensure access to abortion. But like the Supreme Court decision, several of these initiatives are out of Biden’s hands. Democrats are not close to having the support to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, and it is UnlikelyRepublicans are willing to allow Republicans to approve a budget with or without the Hyde Amendment.
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As the country heads toward a future without a national right to abortion, some advocates said they want to see Biden move beyond unwinding Trump’s actions and take more of a leadership role in crafting a proactive response.
“We’re facing a crisis with abortion access. So we’re looking for a proportionate response from all levels—from the Biden administration, Congress, state legislative officials, governors, and so we definitely include the executive branch in who we want to be able to speak to this moment,” says Jacqueline Ayers, Planned Parenthood Federation of America senior vice president of strategy, organizing and campaigns “There’s a lot that’s already been happening, and yet, we still need more. These issues have seen a lot more retreat than the previous administration. And so to make that up, we want them to use their bully pulpit to focus on the abortion crisis.”
‘How abortion stigma plays out in policy’
Advocates say that while it’s important to combat the stigma associated with abortion through the use of the presidency’s bully pulpit, policymakers can make more immediate changes. Even if there is no congressional support to change the federal laws on abortion, international organizations representing reproductive rights say the Biden Administration should take additional action to make sure that the U.S. supports reproductive rights globally.
One example is the Helms Amendment. This law, adopted in 1976 by the Administration, prohibits foreign organizations from providing abortions within family planning services. In theory, it allows U.S. funding for abortions in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life, as well as for information about abortions. It essentially halts funding of all kinds for abortion, according to advocates. Anu Kumar is the president and CEO at Ipas. This organization aims to increase access to safe abortions and contraception worldwide. She claims that the Biden Administration hasn’t offered any guidance.
“Republican administrations have been incredibly vocal about what is prohibited under abortion restrictions like the Helms Amendment and the gag rule. Democratic administrations now need to be vocal on what is permitted,” Kumar says. “The silence on this issue is really remarkable considering how vociferous and loud the Republican administrations have been.”
Ipas staff have been to more than 20 meetings with White House Gender Policy Council members and are in constant communication. According to TIME correspondence, the State Department and USAID have urged administration officials over the last year to give clear direction on the services U.S. assistance recipients can provide. Kumar and her staff presented fact sheets and provided examples of previous administrations during these meetings. They also explained how the Biden Administration might issue specific updates to enable international aid agencies to assist people who are suffering human rights violations in war zones or simply need to travel far to get information.
“It feels very frustrating and disappointing. It was a government that was going to really take these problems seriously. They also spoke out about racial equity. They’ve talked about embedding equity in everything that they do. And we’ve seen that in a number of different issues. We’re just not seeing it here,” Kumar says. “So the questions are, why are they actively blocking this? Why are they not doing everything in their power to increase that access?”
“This is an example of how abortion stigma really plays out in policy,” she adds.
There’s room for more action on the domestic front, too, activists say. It can be difficult for them to do their job, given that Republicans are the major party in governorships and legislatures. This is where pro-abortion activists urge lawmakers to pass abortion restrictions every day. Numerous states have also passed voting restrictions which will make it difficult to vote in this election.
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“The opposition has worked for decades to really systematically chip away at abortion rights, to stack the federal judiciary with judges and justices hostile to reproductive freedom. So they’ve been playing this long game for a very long time. And our side really needs to be really creative in this moment,” says Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL.
Some Democrat-controlled state legislatures have passed legislation that protects the right of abortion. New Jersey just signed legislation that would allow abortion to be protected there. RoeIt was overturned. Vermont proposes a constitutional amendment to guarantee abortion rights in its state. California Initiated a council to develop policies that could make it a “sanctuary” for those seeking abortions in the future and is now considering a slate of bills, including ones that would cover the cost of abortions for uninsured people, help abortion clinics expand their workforce, and protect abortion patients’ medical records.
This is exactly the type of work that advocates want to see in Biden. “These important steps have been taken by the White House, which has also signaled its commitments on important occasions. We want to see more of this. It’s a time to just be really bold and audacious,” Ford says. “We really need so much creativity and ingenuity and innovation right now when it comes to abortion rights.”
“Creative and bold solutions”
Not every strategy will work, activists say, but they want the federal government to try ideas it hasn’t before. It could be new funding for those trying to flee states such as Texas or stronger commitments to making sure everyone has access to abortions no matter their status. The idea was reformulated by three experts on reproductive rights. New York Times essayDezember
Biden can be charismatic when he needs to, according to activists. His speech was strong. Voting rightsLast month, Biden frequently spoke out about his support of the LGBT community. Democrats’ voting rights legislation is now dead, but abortion rights advocates are hoping that there is still time for Biden to put aside discomfort and fight for abortion before the national landscape is fully changed.
“I hope that he can actually get over that and model for the entire country what it looks like to stand up as the President and say that I believe healthcare is a human right, and abortion is part of that health care,” Bracey Sherman says. “Every single one of us love someone who’s had an abortion, and that is why we need to make sure that everyone has access to their constitutionally protected rights, including abortion.”