Harris becomes face for White House in abortion rights fight
Vice President Harris has quickly become the face of the White House fight for abortion rights.
Since it became clear the Supreme Court would strike down Roe v. Wade, Harris has hosted a handful of meetings on abortion at the White House and sprinkled comments about abortion throughout public speeches.
While a trip to the Middle East and plans for domestic stops focused on climate change and gun violence have kept President Biden busy in recent days, Harris has traveled to multiple states to meet with state legislators and other stakeholders on abortion rights in addition to participating in other official stops. A visit to Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday will be her fourth trip that focuses in part on abortion in the span of a week.
In her private meetings and in public, Harris has talked about abortion as an issue of freedom and privacy. Participants in her recent meetings in Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey also said the vice president stressed the need to build coalitions between diverse groups, like abortion advocacy organizations, faith-based groups and those pushing back against state voting restrictions.
“I think she’s really serving as the link to connect the fight in each state to become bigger with additional stakeholders,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Katie Muth (D), who participated in a meeting with Harris over the weekend.
Other White House officials from the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Gender Policy Council have been talking to state officials behind the scenes, but the most public-facing work has come from Harris.
Abortion rights isn’t a formal part of the vice president’s portfolio — Biden has charged Harris with handling tough issues like the root causes of migration and voting rights — but the developments with respect to Roe have offered Harris a fresh opportunity to talk about an issue that has been a priority for her since before she entered the White House.
Harris plans to use her official trips ahead of the midterms to highlight both what the administration has accomplished and what Democrats are fighting for, a White House official said.
“Roe fits into that message,” the official said.
Harris has won plaudits for her handling of the abortion issue, even while the White House has withstood some criticism for not acting aggressively enough on the issue.
“She, I think, is taking this as an issue that she can be very strong on and really very supportive,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D), who sat in on Saturday’s meeting in Philadelphia. “Reaching out to the states and state legislatures is tremendously helpful to us.”
Harris’s focus on the issue is a somewhat natural place for the vice president, who was an advocate for abortion rights as a senator and whose prior prosecutorial experience as attorney general of California helps her understand the legal implications of the Supreme Court’s decision and any executive branch responses to it.
Democrats see her as an effective messenger, too, because of her identity as a Black woman and the way in which she can speak to the disproportionate impact abortion restrictions will have on communities of color.
“She brought up the fact that different marginalized communities are going to feel this in different ways,” said Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), who took part in a meeting with Harris and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on July 14.
The Biden administration has limited tools to push back against GOP-led state efforts to curtail abortion access and has faced blowback from the advocacy community for not being aggressive enough in its executive actions thus far.
Progressives have also argued that the White House was flat-footed and messaging was too slow or ineffective. Biden earlier this month announced executive actions to protect access to abortion medication, which were, in part, overshadowed by the fact that the announcement came two weeks after the ruling from the high court.
In a meeting last week in Florida, Harris heard renewed calls for the Biden administration to declare a national health emergency over the conservative Supreme Court justices’ decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, participants said.
“Abortion is health care and to see now at least 12 states that have bans in place and many that are imminent, it is an emergency,” Eskamani said.
Robyn Schickler, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said when Harris was asked to reconsider a national health emergency, she “seemed to be more focused on a long-term strategy and legislation.”
“She indicated that if two more pro-choice elected officials join the Senate, they would make moves to temporarily put a hold on the filibuster in order to codify Roe,” Schickler said. “Overall, she was very receptive to our perspectives and suggestions, but I sensed a less urgent plan from the administration.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made clear this week that the emergency declaration was still an option the administration is considering.
Advocates had demanded an immediate strategy for defending abortion rights before the Supreme Court officially struck down Roe v. Wade, like an emergency declaration. They have since argued that the calls from the White House to elect more pro-abortion rights candidates in the upcoming midterm elections fail to grasp the urgency of the moment.
Harris on Monday at the NAACP National Convention in New Jersey gave a preview of her midterm message on abortion, lambasting efforts underway by “extremist so-called leaders” in some states to restrict a person’s ability to have an abortion.
“We must recognize there are those who are fighting to drag us backward,” Harris said in the address in Atlantic City. “Extremist so-called leaders who are attempting to undermine our democracy and assault our most fundamental freedoms.”
Like in her meeting in Florida, she looked ahead to the November elections and urged her audience at the convention to vote for Democratic candidates “up and down the ballot” and to elect two more senators in order to change the legislative filibuster.
New Jersey earlier this year passed a bill to codify abortion rights in the state. While Harris said on Monday that New Jersey is doing model work, Alejandra Sorto, a campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said codification doesn’t mean the work for advocates is done.
“The work continues, and it’s something that as advocates we know and we’re pushing for much more because this is not a moment to wait and see, this is a moment to do everything we can,” Sorto said about a meeting Harris convened on Monday.
Also in the meeting, Sorto said they talked about countering misinformation about medical abortion through a national campaign.
“I know it’s an ask from several providers and people who work at health centers and clinics — more information on this is needed. Advocates are doing heroes’ work and providers are doing heroes’ work to share this information, but a national campaign would be incredibly helpful on that,” she said.
Harris’s other meetings have been in states where Republicans have moved to restrict abortion access since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
In Pennsylvania on Saturday, Harris convened state legislators and Democratic Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, Dwight Evans and Madeleine Dean for a discussion on GOP-controlled state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, that have enacted bills to limit access to reproductive care.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has vetoed Republican efforts to restrict abortions in the state, but the state legislature recently approved a constitutional amendment in an effort to sidestep the governor’s veto. The amendment could ultimately be put to a vote on the ballot.
That has Democrats stressing the importance of the Senate and gubernatorial elections in the state this fall.
“Participants in our meeting with VP Harris were clear that those amendments will negatively impact our constituents’ freedoms and will particularly harm the health, welfare, and financial stability of low-income families and communities of color,” Scanlon told The Hill.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier this year signed into law a 15-week abortion ban in the state that has no exceptions for rape or incest, but the state is surrounded by other red states that have enacted stricter bans, leading to an influx of people seeking abortions. That has created questions and concerns for providers in the state.
Eskamani, like others, said she is looking for more guidance from the Biden administration on access to abortion medication given that Florida bans telehealth abortion.
“The situation on the ground is really, really dire,” she said.
Updated at 7:23 a.m.