/Could Biden’s Opposition to Federal Abortion Funding Bring Him Down?

Could Biden’s Opposition to Federal Abortion Funding Bring Him Down?

Joe Biden is playing with fire on reproductive rights.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The central saga of Joe Biden’s campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination has been his effort to renounce, obscure, or contextualize retrograde positions he took in the 47 years since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate without disrupting his comforting image as Uncle Joe, the man who can beat the Bad Man and return the country to the relatively calm and stable days of the Obama administration.

This balancing act has been complicated by Biden’s reputation for committing gaffes and running really bad presidential campaigns. But up until now he’s done really well, as demonstrated by his relatively stable poll standings (down a bit lately but still higher than they were before he announced his candidacy), high approval ratios, and strong showings in head-to-head trial heats against Trump.

But Biden’s cruise through the invisible primary of 2019 may have now hit a major speed bump, as the New York Times reports:

Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has shunned today’s Democratic Party orthodoxy on issues from crime to compromising with Republicans, again broke with his party’s base and many of his campaign rivals on Wednesday when his campaign confirmed that he still backs the Hyde Amendment, a measure that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion with exceptions for cases involving rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.

The Hyde Amendment (named after its sponsor, Henry Hyde, a hard-core anti-abortion House member from Illinois) is an annual appropriations rider that keeps the federal government, and particularly the Medicaid program that provides health coverage for some low-income people, from funding abortion services. It was first enacted in 1976 but didn’t take effect until 1980, thanks to court challenges to its constitutionality. But its impact has been considerable and enduring. According to one estimate, Medicaid was paying for about 300,000 abortions per year before the amendment took effect. Since then, many poor women have had to find alternative means to secure and pay for abortions — sometimes later in pregnancy than they wished and often never at all. Combined with constant attacks on abortion providers that limited practical access to abortion services, Hyde has been a constant reminder that reproductive rights are contingent on women having the resources and opportunity to take advantage of them.

Politically, support for the Hyde Amendment was until recently bipartisan if never balanced. It was often used as a gesture by generally pro-choice members of Congress in both parties to head off heat from anti-abortion militants in primaries and general elections alike. Democratic president Jimmy Carter supported it. Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not when they were running for president but accommodated the amendment as a way to keep the federal government operating (Obama famously signed an executive order codifying Hyde as part of a deal with anti-abortion Democrats to secure enactment of the Affordable Care Act).

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and, for the first time, a commitment to repeal appeared in the Democratic Party platform. That shift reflected in part a simple evolution of the Democratic coalition and in part the growing realization that being “pro-choice” didn’t mean much without a willingness to fight for increasingly imperiled practical access to abortion services.

So Joe Biden is definitely swimming against the tide in reinforcing support for Hyde, in a way that will enable reminders that he once didn’t support abortion rights at all and also opposed rape-and-incest exceptions from the Hyde ban. It doesn’t help that he appears to have recently flip-flopped:

Now his campaign is suggesting he didn’t understand the question and never meant to favor repeal of Hyde (the campaign said Biden thought he was being asked about the “global gag rule”). This isn’t getting any better for him.

Biden’s statement has motivated a rush by his Democratic rivals to reaffirm their own willingness to repeal Hyde, viz., this tweet from Beto O’Rourke:

And this one from Julián Castro:

And perhaps most tellingly, this one from Tim Ryan, who opposed abortion rights until just a few years ago:

Meanwhile NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s most prominent reproductive-rights organization, tore Biden a new one:

Assuming there was a political calculation behind Biden’s positioning on Hyde, it’s probably based on polling showing that the amendment is popular among the general electorate and commands significant support from a minority of Democrats, too. But like every question involving abortion policy, measures of public opinion vary according to the framing, and the idea of denying abortion services to women who happen to be poor isn’t popular at all.

Could this issue be the one that finally brings inchoate ideological resistance to Joe Biden’s candidacy into sharp focus and erodes his rank-and-file support? It’s hard to say yet. But this really does look like it could become one Biden gaffe that he committed with malice aforethought.