When announcing his public health team a few weeks ago, President-elect Joe Biden mangled the pronunciation of Xavier Becerra’s name, calling him “Bacarea” before quickly correcting himself. Perhaps more telling, Biden also botched the name of Becerra’s projected position. Despite staring at a teleprompter, Biden referred to the non-existent Department of “Health and Education Services” rather than Health and Human Services. In the recesses of Biden’s mind was likely a memory of the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. HEW, as it was known, ceased to be in 1980, becoming HHS with the spinning off of the Department of Education.
The 78-year-old Biden will probably be the final occupant of the Oval Office with deep political ties to the 1970s. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, for example, was not yet able to legally drive when Biden was gearing up his re-election run for the Senate in 1979. During that decade, most Catholic politicians were Democrats and a sizable portion of them were pro-life. One was Joseph Califano, President Jimmy Carter’s first Secretary of HEW.
In his 1981 book Governing America, Califano would write, “Whatever distance the president wanted from me on other policies . . . he held me at his side whenever he spoke of abortion.” Carter once said on television: “Joe Califano, who is secretary of HEW, feels the same way I do against abortions.”
Still, Califano noted that the top appointees below him did not support Carter’s campaign pledge to oppose public funding for abortions:
Shortly after becoming HEW secretary, I discovered that few, if any, of my colleagues shared my view or the president's on abortion.
Everyone in the top HEW management who expressed his opinion disagreed with mine. Only at the Christmas open house, when they streamed through my office to shake hands and have a picture taken, would HEW employees—mostly the blacks or Catholics—whisper, “Don't let them kill those black babies,” or “God bless you for your stand against abortion.”
The same was true at the White House. A few staff members, such as Midge Costanza, were publicly outspoken in favor of federal funding for abortion.
Costanza, the chief public liaison and the first female Special Assistant to the President, would organize an internal meeting seeking to pressure Carter to change his position. The president held firm.
In 1977, a court injunction against the Hyde Amendment, which limited public funding for abortions, was lifted. Carter subsequently supported a new version of the budget rider and Califano’s HEW promptly issued regulations implementing it. With the bipartisan ban in place with only limited exceptions, the number of taxpayer-funded Medicaid abortions dropped from around 300,000 a year to 3,158 in the first 16 months after enforcement began.
Yet it was Costanza, not Carter or Califano, who signaled the future direction of the Democrats. Today, a “pro-lifers need not apply” attitude is palpable in the Democratic ranks as the last of the pro-lifers in the House face wave after wave of well-funded primary opponents. The anti-abortion remnants are begrudgingly tolerated only in places considered cultural backwaters by the coastal Democratic elites—states like Louisiana, home of Gov. John Bel Edwards, and West Virginia, from whence Sen. Joe Manchin hails.
In 2020, Biden largely ran as a moderate check on the party’s progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders. For that he was rewarded with the nomination, thanks in great part to the primary election votes of older African Americans who continue to moderate the Democratic coalition despite the flashier activism on the far left. Countering Trump’s rhetorical parade-of-socialist-horribles, Biden once snapped back, “I beat the socialist. . . . Look at my career—my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
A similar path was available to him on abortion. A 2018 Marist poll found that 41 percent of African Americans identify as “pro-life” and 54 percent oppose taxpayer-funded abortions. More broadly, 60 percent of Americans and 54 percent of Democrats oppose public funding. Nevertheless, after a career of sometimes awkward fence-straddling, Biden decided early in the election cycle to blend in rather than stand out.
Promises to Keep, Biden’s 2007 book, includes this note: “I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding.” He added, “I’ve stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years.” That claim of consistency was a bit of a stretch. Biden had drifted leftward significantly since the 1974 interview in which the then freshman senator said, “When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion.” In 1982, Biden cast a Judiciary Committee vote for a constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe v. Wade. In 1987, though, as chairman of that committee, Biden would turn “Bork” into a verb. During the 2020 campaign, Biden would trumpet his record of blocking Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court over the judge’s suspected opposition to Roe.
Yet despite his shift on Roe, Biden could honestly claim consistency on the public funding of abortion. He always voted against it. He had even consistently voted to keep the Hyde Amendment free from exceptions for rape and incest. Furthermore, in 1981 he had championed legislation—still on the books today and commonly known as the Biden Amendment—that prevents foreign-assistance dollars from funding biomedical research involving abortion. But Biden clumsily flipped on the Hyde Amendment in 2019, disappointing the likes of Joe Donnelly (the former Democratic senator from Indiana who still favors Hyde) but mollifying the abortion lobby, which might have loudly highlighted any deviation from “abortion on demand and without apology.”
If there was any hope that Biden might tack back to the center, the choice of Becerra made it clear that he was not looking for a modern-day Califano to hold the line. Becerra is a different sort of Catholic politician who has a pro-abortion history that includes targeting the Little Sisters of the Poor and those whose undercover work exposed the trade in fetal body parts. Pro-life activists are rightly alarmed. Biden’s brain may still be stuck in the 1970s, but he is no Jimmy Carter.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise, Idaho.
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