Administration

Biden’s discomfort with abortion comes under scrutiny

President Biden’s longtime discomfort with the issue of abortion, fueled by his Catholicism and his personal and complex stance on access, has come under scrutiny this week with the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that shows a majority of justices supporting the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The president is often criticized for attempting to balance his faith with his support for abortion access. But Biden hasn’t publicly used the word abortion out loud during his presidency until this week, and he also hasn’t called for an end to the filibuster in order for Congress to codify Roe v. Wade as he has for other legislative matters.

The mere use of the word abortion by Biden in comments to reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday was striking amid the term being blasted seemingly everywhere following Monday night’s unprecedented publication by Politico.

“It’s personal to all practicing Catholics and it’s difficult. I mean, I’m sure it’s something he struggles with often. I don’t know if it’s on a daily basis, but certainly going forward for the next few weeks it will be,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when Biden talks about his commitment to protecting a woman’s right to choose, he’s referring to abortion rights.

“I think most people know that,” she said, pointing to statements he’s made over the last two days in response to a question about how comfortable Biden is talking about the issue.

Biden is the second Catholic president in U.S. history, following former President John F. Kennedy. On Saturday evenings, he is often found attending Catholic mass either in Wilmington, Del., or in Washington, D.C.

Jamie Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, argued Biden has a “cognitive dissonance” on the issue of abortion. Catholics for Choice considers primacy of conscience, social justice and religious pluralism in society as reasons why Catholics can be pro-abortion rights, despite the teachings of the church.

“That’s where I would start with the president to help him get out of what I think is a cognitive dissonance he has around what he feels — he has a conviction about wanting women to have their right but also being a traditional Catholic,” she said.

Biden has been attacked by conservative Catholic bishops for his stance on abortion access since he first entered the White House, which has led to calls for the church to not offer him communion.

In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a document on communion without mentioning whether Biden or other politicians should be denied the rite based on their stance on abortion, signaling an end to the debate on the issue.

Biden, weeks before that, received support from Pope Francis, who said told him he should keep receiving communion. The topic of abortion did not come up in the meeting, but the pope has said that while abortion is “murder,” no one should be denied communion. 

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with it being a morally complex issue. I don’t know how it can’t be given the stigma and taboo the bishops and priests have attached to this issue. But [Biden] has to really sort it out,” Manson said. 

Biden notably used the term “abort a child” on Tuesday along with his long-awaited use of the word abortion, saying a ruling that “no one can make the judgment to choose to abort a child based on a decision by the Supreme Court, I think, goes way overboard.”

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that life is created at the point of conception, while others argue that a fetus, which develops after several weeks, is what is being aborted. Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro chair of public interest law at George Washington University, said that Biden describing Roe as protecting the right to abort a child was “a surprising statement.”

“Pro-choice advocates often object to the reference to anything other than the ‘fetus’ in debates,” Turley said.

Biden’s opinion on abortion access has evolved in his decades in politics. When the Supreme Court first decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, Biden said he thought it went “too far.” During the 2008 presidential race, Biden, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said his “biggest dilemma” is balancing his faith and cultural views. 

But his presidential run in 2020 marked a major shift when, under pressure from Democrats, he changed his stance on the Hyde amendment.

Throughout his long political career, he supported the Hyde amendment, which first passed Congress in 1976 to prohibit federal funds to be used to pay for abortions. During the Democratic presidential primary, Biden said he can no longer support it and was hailed by reproductive rights groups when he didn’t include it in his 2022 budget.

“We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that evolving was for him,” Manson said.

Now, reproductive rights groups want him to get over his discomfort.

Sharmin Hossain, campaign director at Liberate Abortion, an abortion advocacy coalition, argued that avoiding the word washes over “the significance of this specific health care procedure that is being attacked.” She also argued that not saying the word is a form of pandering to “right wing” attacks on abortion rights. 

Manson said that not using the word abortion is also common for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is also Catholic, as well as Biden. Pelosi is no stranger to being in the spotlight for how her pro-abortion rights stances mix with her faith.

“I think that is common for Biden, this is common for Nancy Pelosi,” Manson said. “I do think that this is years and years of Catholic inculcation, that I think that they, in their brains, equate abortion with murder and I think it is very hard to deprogram from that.”

Biden, along with several Democratic lawmakers, have argued this week that other privacy rights are at stake if the Supreme Court draft opinion is finalized and Roe v. Wade is in fact overturned, as he spoke, if for a moment, from the perch of a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as a Catholic. 

“It does show that Joe Biden has a wide breadth of experience in being a former Judiciary Committee member, understanding that privacy issues are critical. I mean, they’re a critical element to the Constitution. That’s important and it’s a compelling argument,” said Carney, the former Pennsylvania congressman who is now a senior policy adviser at Nossaman LLP.

His political leaning as a moderate Democrat could also be in the spotlight as he navigates the precariousness of talking about abortion, while progressives in his party are energized and noticeably more outspoken on the issue.

“As a moderate Democrat, you are often weighing personal belief over what you think is constitutionally correct and best for the country,” Carney said. “I think that President Biden as the president is in that position. Joe Biden as a Catholic is in that position.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report. Updated at 1:30 p.m.

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