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President Joe Biden on Tuesday made a quick reference to abortion in his State of the Union speech but disappointed activists by not offering a clear plan to guarantee access to the service.
“Congress must restore the right the Supreme Court took away last year and codify Roe v. Wade to protect every woman’s constitutional right to choose,” Biden said. He promised to veto a national abortion plan if passed by Congress.
Biden is treating abortion rights differently than other domestic issues, giving it short shrift in speeches like Tuesday’s address, activists say. They view his reticence as a signal that abortion rights aren’t as high a priority to the president as it is for many of their voters.
“For every issue every year, he paints a really beautiful picture of how he’s going to build back better — but not on abortion,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, which represents those who have had abortions.
Biden’s stance on abortion has shifted over the years: while in Congress he supported bans on federal funds for abortion but came to reverse that stance as president. He doesn’t often raise the issue, making only a passing mention during his last State of the Union.
Sherman lobbied during the start of Biden’s presidency to get him just to say the word “abortion.” She waited 468 days until he did. In his prepared remarks for Tuesday, the word comes up twice. He actually said the word just once.
Eight months after the Supreme Court ended the long-standing constitutional right to abortion, Sherman and others are looking for him to say much more than the word.
“I don’t want to hear any more platitudes,” she said. “I want to hear an actual plan.”
Biden’s call for Congress to restore the constitutional right to abortion fell short with activists.
“We don’t need to go back to old policies that left many without access to care,” Morgan Hopkins, president of All* Above All, an abortion rights group, said in a statement. “We need bold action now from President Biden to finish the job of ensuring abortion care is affordable, available, and supported for anyone who needs it.”
Biden officials in recent weeks have outlined what the administration is doing to ensure Americans can access abortion medication and safely travel to states to where the procedure is legal.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has been dispatched repeatedly—including a recent trip to a Planned Parenthood facility in Minnesota—to talk about efforts like advising hospitals that abortion is protected in emergencies by federal laws, and underscoring that insurers should cover birth control.
Democrats in Congress say they’re drawing a distinction between themselves—and by extension Biden—and Republicans who have vowed to restrict access to abortion.
“We have to show that contrast, because it’s glaring,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the House’s Pro-Choice Caucus. Lee said Biden has been leading on abortion issues, pointing to actions his administration has taken and his support for a bill the House passed last year prohibiting the government from limiting access to abortion.
Guests at Address
Abortion stories weren’t absent from the Capitol Tuesday: First Lady Jill Biden invited an Austin woman who nearly died from sepsis after not being able to get an abortion following a miscarriage, according to the White House. Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) brought as a guest Olivia Julianna, a Texas abortion rights activist.
Planned Parenthood counted eight other lawmakers who brought guests who had an abortion and publicly told their stories, were abortion providers, or are tied to Planned Parenthood.
Sherman said Biden himself needs to make a positive case for creating new federal abortion protections, setting the stage for a new standard instead of simply asking to return to Roe. The president could outline policy specifics he want to see Congress enact, or keep the issue active by outlining the harms caused by restricting access to the procedure, she said.
For a president who likes to talk about helping families, Sherman said, Biden doesn’t spend much time on abortion.
“I cannot think of a more critical decision that someone would make than if, when, and how someone chooses to grow their family,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org