Amid escalating threats to abortion rights, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed to NBC News on Wednesday that the candidate still supports a decades-long ban on using federal funds for abortion services. It’s a sign to many that the Democratic frontrunner isn’t fit to lead the party into a bold progressive future.
The campaign statement comes just weeks after Biden told an American Civil Liberties Union volunteer that he would lift the ban, known as the Hyde Amendment, if elected president in 2020.
Biden’s sudden reversal on the issue has frustrated reproductive rights advocates, who have long spoken out about the 1976 amendment’s deleterious effects on abortion access. Though President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1993 that added exceptions for rape, incest, and life endangerment, Hyde still prevents the vast majority of the roughly 15.6 million women on Medicaid from receiving federally-funded abortion care.
"To support the Hyde Amendment is to block people—particularly women of color and women with low incomes—from accessing safe, legal abortion,” Kelley Robinson, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. “As abortion access is being restricted and pushed out of reach in states around the country, it is unacceptable for a candidate to support policies that further restrict abortion.”
Biden’s campaign clarified on Wednesday that the candidate would be “open to repealing Hyde if abortion avenues currently protected under Roe were threatened,” but the candidate’s waffling only raises more concern among those already skeptical of the current Democratic frontrunner. Since announcing his campaign in April, Biden has come under fire for preaching compromise with Republicans, whom he believes will have an “epiphany” after President Donald Trump leaves office.
To some, abortion rights is just another issue for which there can be no compromise.
“There are some other issues where candidates could argue with having a moderate boring position might win them political points in the primary,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grassroots organization that does electoral and advocacy work. “But this position is just an outright political loser as well as being a horrible policy for Biden—there’s no market for restricting poor women, women of color, and women in the military from getting reproductive healthcare.”
Biden’s position on the Hyde Amendment stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Democratic field. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Representative Eric Swalwell, and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke have all voiced support for lifting the ban on federal funding for abortion.
Biden’s voting record on abortion rights has always been uneven. The year after the Hyde Amendment passed, he voted against a measure that would create the exceptions for rape, incest, and risks to the pregnant person’s life Clinton later went on to codify, and voted against the measure a second time in 1981. He has, however, expressed unequivocal support for Roe v. Wade.
Meanwhile, earlier this year his Democratic primary opponents introduced the EACH Woman Act, which would repeal the Hyde Amendment. Equivalent legislation introduced in the 2017-2018 session received overwhelming backing from House Democrats, and the wave of progressives elected in November’s midterms will give the legislation unprecedented support in the House in 2019.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed women’s constitutional right to make their own reproductive decisions, and it didn’t say ‘only wealthy women’ or ‘only women with insurance,’” Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, among those who spearheaded the legislation, told Vogue in March. “Whatever you think about the Supreme Court’s ruling, we should all agree that what’s legal for a wealthy American shouldn’t be illegal or inaccessible for a poor American or a person of color—and that’s what this bill is about: fairness, equality, and equal opportunity.”
Advocates for repealing the amendment say such a move would be transformational for patients, removing one more barrier to care—of which there are many for vulnerable women, particularly those who live in states with several restrictions on abortion already on the books.
“In the current system, patients enrolled in Medicaid in many states have to sell their personal belongings or forego paying rent to afford abortions,” said Rachel Cannon, a Massachusetts-based OB/GYN and a fellow at Physicians for Reproductive Health. “They often have to travel long distances and miss time from work to access care.
“Repealing the Hyde Amendment would be a major breakthrough in reducing barriers to abortion care,” she continued. “Patients cannot live their full, productive lives when their health insurance does not cover comprehensive reproductive services.”