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Biden Is Now an Uneasy Champion on Abortion. Activists Are Still Wary.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion in the United States after nearly 50 years has sparked intergenerational conflict over Republican efforts to ban the procedure in states across the country.

But inside the West Wing, President Biden has made clear he is uncomfortable even using the word abortion, according to current and former advisers. In public speeches and statements, the word is preferred to be used in moderation, focusing instead on broader phrases, such as “reproductive health” and “right to choose,” which may have a broader resonance with the audience.

Mr. Biden, a devout Catholic who has relied on his faith to shape his political identity, is now called upon to lead a battle he has spent decades avoiding — and many abortion rights advocates fear he may not be the right apostle right now.

Having been an outspoken critic of abortion rights, and then a committed and quiet advocate for them, Mr. Biden has a history that gives activists pause.

“This is not necessarily the man that I’m sure most activists wanted to take in the seat when that happened,” said Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, referring to the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. “It’s unfortunate because he has a lot of power and we want him to really get out of his comfort zone.”

For five decades, Mr. Biden has spoken openly about the strength of his religion, portraying himself as an advocate for workers and a fighter for social justice. He also directed his faith toward what he once called a “mid-way” approach to abortion—essentially, not voting to reduce abortion, but not voting to fund it as well.

Like other Democrats of his generation, Biden used Roe’s protection against Wade to avoid pressing for legislation that might have enshrined the provision in federal law.

Now, a growing group of women’s groups, progressive Democrats and abortion rights activists see the decision to bring down Roe as an indictment of this centrist approach, saying Democrats like Mr. Biden have been very cautious about the issue for years.

They say the Supreme Court’s decision should be met with a fierce legal, political and rhetorical response. And after a crucial vote last week to defend abortion rights in the deeply conservative state of Kansas, many Democrats see this as the moment to compete more assertively on the issue.

Biden’s advisers say his views on abortion have changed over time and that he is deeply committed to abortion rights. Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, a group that helps elect Democratic women in support of abortion rights, said she was satisfied that Biden and his team were “using every tool at their disposal” to fight for the cause.

But the president’s history of abortion — inspired by his religion and the Democratic Party’s years of meticulous political arithmetic — has left him struggling to live up to the expectations of those in his party who want a new strategy and new energy.

“Yes, there are limits to the power of the executive branch, and there are limits to what the president can do,” said Andrea Miller, chair of the National Institute of Reproductive Health. “But it feels like you have to cross the line now. This is the time to pull all the stops. This is the time to take a risk.”

In 2007, Biden wrote in his memoir “Promises to Fulfill” that his stance on abortion “has earned me distrust of certain women’s groups.” In the book, he recounts a 1973 conversation with a veteran senator who said his cautious approach was a “tough” approach.

I told him, “Yes, everyone will be upset with me, except me. But I am comfortable intellectually and morally with my position,” Mr. Biden wrote in the book.

Now, he finds himself championing abortion rights. In June, just days after the court ruling, he appeared upset when a reporter noted that some activists did not believe he was the right person to lead the fight against Republican efforts to ban the procedure.

“I’m the only boss they’ve got,” he said.

Mr. Biden has long said that his views on abortion – and the appropriate role of government in regulating it – are the result of his faith. In 1982, when he voted for a constitutional amendment pushed by Republicans to allow individual states to overturn Roe v. Wade, he said, “My knowledge.”

The Catholic Church considers human life to begin from conception and says that “the willful killing of a human being living in the womb” is always immoral. Church teaching generally allows “indirect” abortion when a medical procedure required for another life-saving reason results in the death of the fetus. But many Catholics disagree with the Church’s official position. in Pew Research Center Survey Released last month, 60 percent of Catholics in the US said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Other Democratic politicians have had difficult moments navigating their positions on this issue. Leaders of the American Catholic Church have publicly rebuked Catholic politicians such as John F. Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for their stances.

By his own admission, Mr. Biden is deeply religious and rarely misses an opportunity to attend mass.

Last year in St Ives, a seaside town in Cornwall in the southern tip of England, Mr Biden, attending the annual G7 meeting with world leaders, snuck into the back benches of the Sacred Heart and St Aya Church. For Mass with about 50 other parishioners. Reverend Philip Dyson received an alert just minutes before the president and his wife arrived.

“I found him gracious, humble, and a gentleman,” said Father Dyson, recalling the brief conversation after Mass, and the priest did not say whether he had offered the sacrifice to the chief during the service. Some Roman Catholic bishops believe that politicians who support abortion should be denied communion.

“It’s controversial,” said Father Dyson, “and it’s between him and the Lord.”

Abortion has been a part of Biden’s faith that has been a source of conflict for the president and his allies over the years, said John Carr, director of the Catholic Social Thought and Public Life Initiative at Georgetown University.

“It is a product of Catholic social teachings and democratic orthodoxy,” said Mr. Carr, who has been involved in several small group discussions with Mr. Biden on religion and politics. “When the two of them get together, he is really comfortable with the way he talks, the way he acts. At least he is at home where the conflict between the two is.”

Allies of the president have noted that since the Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Biden has issued two executive orders intended to protect the right to travel for health care and the right to get medication. Last week, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in Idaho, accusing the state of illegally restricting abortion when the procedure is necessary to stabilize a woman’s health.

Representative Catherine M. “The problem is with a radical Republican saying, ‘We don’t respect your faith, your medical history and your circumstances.'”

But for most of his career, Mr. Biden has been viewed with suspicion by abortion rights advocates because of his history on the issue.

In 1984, Mr. Biden voted to praise the “Mexico City Policy,” a decision by the Reagan administration to prevent funding of abortion services abroad. This position was anathema to today’s Democratic president. Over the ensuing years, Republican presidents routinely reinstated the policy, and Democrats scrapped it. Mr. Biden rescinded it eight days after taking office.

For years, Mr. Biden also refused to join other Democrats in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a federal ban on abortion funding. It wasn’t until 2019 when he reversed himself. Facing a backlash from within his own party, he said he “can no longer support an amendment” that would make it difficult for low-income women to obtain abortions. Although he followed through by introducing budgets without Hyde’s restrictive language, lawmakers added it again.

As vice president, Biden has fought to exempt Catholic institutions from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to provide contraceptive coverage. This ruling was vigorously opposed by American Catholic bishops, and Mr. Biden attempted to make the bishops’ case.

He eventually lost, though the Supreme Court later overturned the contraceptive order.

Kathleen Sebelius, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, said Biden wanted to “avoid a fight with the church.”

“I think that’s kind of where the conversation started,” she said. But she noted that Biden eventually acknowledged the impact a refusal to cover contraceptives could have on people working in Catholic institutions.

“It started in one place, then gradually moved to a completely different place,” she said.

On other issues where Democratic positions have clashed with Catholic education, such as support for same-sex marriage, Mr. Biden was quicker to change his position, Mr. Carr said, referring to what he called the president’s “passion and rhetoric” on LGBT issues.

But, he said, abortion has always seemed more difficult for the president.

“Biden never sought the power to make abortion more accessible,” Mr. Carr said. “It’s not part of his personality.”

The president admitted this in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2007.

“I am a committed Catholic,” he said. “And it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of aligning my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility.”

Two days before the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion advocates in the White House met with some of Biden’s top aides and Vice President Kamala Harris, who has become a powerful voice for the administration on the abortion issue.

Everyone knew what was likely to happen, after POLITICO published weeks before an abortion opinion draft in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization. But some people around the table left unsatisfied with the administration’s plans to respond to the ruling.

“It was a very frustrating meeting as we looked to the White House for guidance,” said Ms Manson, of Catholics for a Choice. “Instead, what we got was a summary of all the conversations they had with all of us.”

Others at the meeting described it differently, saying the administration spent weeks preparing for Dobbs’ decision in a series of productive meetings with activists.

But the frustration has clearly highlighted the tension between Biden and abortion rights activists, with many of whom have said publicly that the president’s past stances make it difficult for them to trust he is all involved in the struggle.

Biden’s aides noted that he has used the word “abortion” several times since the ruling. and in Saturday statement The White House has condemned a new Indiana law banning nearly all abortions, and has used the term to reiterate support for reproductive rights.

But some veterans of the abortion rights movement say they remain wary of a president uncomfortable using the word. Others say they are willing to judge Biden by his actions.

Minnie Temarago, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said there is value in Mr. Biden’s approach, which can appeal to a wider audience. But she said the president should not shy away from using direct and strong language at a time when people are afraid.

“He did,” she said. “And he’s going to need to feel more comfortable with that because this is the contemporary Democratic Party. It’s getting there, from what I can see.”

Katie Rogers Contributed to reporting from Washington, and Maggie Habermann from New York.



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