President Joe Biden delivered remarks at the White House shortly after the Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade was announced. The leaked Supreme Court draft from weeks earlier gave the president plenty of time to prepare for this outcome—assuming that neither internal deliberations nor media pressure nor protests at the homes of the justices nor assassination attempts would modify the result. None did. Thus, an unwritten right gleaned only from the penumbras of the constitutional text is no more, and the topic of abortion is finally returned to the democratic process.
The Joe Biden who was sworn in as a young senator in 1973 just weeks before Roe was announced would have applauded Dobbs. President Joe Biden, however, having slowly twisted his position 180 degrees in his long quest to reach the Oval Office, scowled. Biden stood alone in Cross Hall, but perhaps he could still hear the echoes of his former self.
Biden’s political career spans the Roe era and he, despite almost being kicked out of law school for plagiarism, had an outsized role in its dramas as the longtime member and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden’s personal contortions also well represent the movement of his party from a conflicted coalition that included both blue-collar Catholics and bra-burning feminists to what is now, with very few exceptions, the party of abortion.
“[I]t’s a sad day for the Court and for the country. . . . I believe Roe v. Wade was the correct decision as a matter of constitutional law, an application of the fundamental right to privacy and liberty in matters of family and personal autonomy,” Biden said on June 24.
Make no mistake: This decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law. It’s a realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court, in my view. . . . [Dobbs is] [s]o extreme that women and girls who are forced to bear their rapist’s child—of the child of consequence. It’s a—it just—it just stuns me. . . . Imagine having—a young woman having to ch-—carry the child of incest—as a consequence of incest. No option. Too often the case that poor women are going to be hit the hardest. It’s cruel.
In 1974, Biden struck a very different tone: “[W]hen 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. I think it went too far. I don't think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
Biden the senator long supported the Hyde Amendment, the appropriations rider that bans most direct federal funding for abortions. At every opportunity during his Senate career, Biden voted against adding rape and incest exceptions to the law. It originally only included an exception to protect the life of the mother. Prior to the Hyde Amendment, taxpayers paid for some 300,000 abortions annually. Most of those abortions were performed on poor women through the Medicaid program. In a 1994 letter to a constituent, Sen. Biden highlighted his record of voting against federal abortion funding “on no fewer than 50 occasions.” Biden said, “[T]hose of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them.”
Back to Biden of 2022:
Some states are saying that they’ll try to ban or severely restrict access to these medications [such as the abortifacient drug mifepristone]. . . . Today, I’m directing the Department of Health and Human Services to take steps to ensure that these critical medications are available to the fullest extent possible. . . . This fall, we must elect more senators and representatives who will codify a woman’s right to choose into federal law once again, elect more state leaders to protect this right at the local level. We need to restore the protections of Roe as law of the land. We need to elect officials who will do that.
In 1981, Biden successfully championed legislation that states, “No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for any biomedical research which relates, in whole or in part, to methods of, or the performance of, abortions or involuntary sterilization as a means of family planning.” The law is still on the books today and is known as the Biden Amendment. One year later, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe and returned the issue of abortion to the states (which is exactly what the Dobbs decision does).
Through his appointment of three of the five relevant justices, a once flagrantly adulterous Donald Trump has proven to be an unlikely hinge in the decades-long effort to overturn Roe. The transactional Trump, though, possessed a businessman’s ability to sense a reluctant partner’s bottom line. For many religious voters, that bottom line was life. With Mike Pence by his side and explicit assurances on judicial nominations, enough pro-lifers held their noses and voted for Trump in 2016 to propel him to the White House. The Trump presidency produced a web of mixed results (with some of the deep downsides on display this week through the committee hearings on January 6). Yet, with Dobbs, it is clear that Trump did ultimately deliver on the Christian right’s top priority.
As a former altar boy who still carries a rosary in his pocket and publicly crosses himself on a regular basis, Biden makes a similarly surprising cheerleader for abortion. He too, though, shares Trump’s ability to sense the necessary bottom line. When his party required its nominee to demonstrate absolutism on abortion, Biden took the deal. He is now honoring the contract.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. So does the devil.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise.
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