President Biden’s nod to reproductive rights during his State of the Union address drew a mixed bag of responses, including criticism from some advocates who had hoped for a much more forceful defense of abortion rights.
“The constitutional right affirmed by Roe v. Wade, standing precedent for half a century, is under attack as never before,” Biden said in his Tuesday night speech. “If we want to go forward — not backwards — we must protect access to healthcare, preserve a woman’s right to choose, and continue to advance maternal healthcare for all in America.”
Biden’s remarks in the wide-ranging speech came exactly six months after a near-total abortion ban went into effect in Texas, and months before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks.
“‘For every other issue, he painted a picture of what he’ll do to rebuild America, from electric-car charging stations and high-speed internet, but he refuses to build back better for abortion.’”
— Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify
But some abortion-rights supporters expressed disappointment despite Biden’s mention of Roe v. Wade. Many have called for the president to take a stronger stance on protecting abortion rights and explicitly use the word “abortion” in statements and speeches, a move they say would signal full support of abortion access and help destigmatize the issue during a time when rights are under threat.
“We deserve better,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions. “We need to hear President Biden have our back and he can start by using the word ‘abortion.’”
While Biden’s speech did mention the need to protect Roe, “he did not mention how he plans to do that and once again refused to use the word abortion — furthering stigma and once again not meeting the historic and terrifying moment we are in,” Bracey Sherman added. “For every other issue, he painted a picture of what he’ll do to rebuild America, from electric-car charging stations and high-speed internet, but he refuses to build back better for abortion.”
Morgan Hopkins, the interim executive director of campaigns and strategies for the abortion-justice organization All* Above All, said after the speech: “We commend President Biden for alluding to the abortion care crisis we’re in, but it’s not enough.”
“‘Last year, President Biden pledged a “whole of government” response to Texas’ extreme abortion ban, and six months later, we need to see more concrete steps from the White House to address the crisis we are in.’”
— Morgan Hopkins, the interim executive director of campaigns and strategies for the abortion-justice organization All* Above All
“Last year, President Biden pledged a ‘whole of government’ response to Texas’ extreme abortion ban, and six months later, we need to see more concrete steps from the White House to address the crisis we are in,” Hopkins said. “Anti-abortion state politicians are pushing a record number of restrictions and a looming Supreme Court decision could devastate access in even more states.”
When reached by MarketWatch, the White House did not provide a comment on the record.
The Biden administration has taken some actions on the issue, including telegraphing its priorities by omitting from its 2022 budget proposal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening conditions; easing access to abortion pills; rescinding the “global gag rule,” which bars foreign NGOs that get U.S. funding from offering abortion counseling or referrals, even using non-U.S. funds; and revoking Title X regulations issued by the Trump administration that prevented clinics receiving federal funding from discussing abortion with patients.
The Justice Department sued Texas in an effort to prevent enforcement of the state’s abortion law, while the Health and Human Services Department provided grant support for Texas clinics to respond to increased demand for emergency contraception and family planning services, among other actions.
The Biden administration also backed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enshrine abortion rights in federal law. Senate Republicans this week blocked that bill from advancing, an expected outcome given the evenly divided Senate.
Other national abortion-rights organizations had more positive reactions to Biden’s State of the Union speech. Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Alexis McGill Johnson thanked the president “for making important calls tonight to protect reproductive, LGBTQ+ and voting rights, advance maternal health, expand health care access, and to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.”
“As state legislatures across the country escalate relentless attacks on abortion rights and the Supreme Court gearing up to rule on a case this spring that could overturn Roe v. Wade, we need President Biden and all our leaders to step up and fight back,” she said.
And Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Biden’s address to the nation came “at a moment when the stakes for reproductive freedom could not be higher.”
“It’s clear that the Biden-Harris administration recognizes that reproductive freedom is under attack and this moment requires bold action,” Timmaraju said. “We’re grateful that President Biden noted this pivotal moment for our movement during his address.”
More than 120 organizations that support abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, All* Above All Action Fund and We Testify, had written to Biden last month urging him to be clear during his State of the Union speech “that protecting abortion access is of paramount importance given both the ongoing crisis in Texas and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will further decimate the constitutional right to abortion later this year.”
Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement, which believes life begins at conception, has railed against the White House’s support for abortion rights. The Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group, calls the Biden administration “the most pro-abortion administration ever” and says it is trying to “expand extreme abortion policies that most Americans reject.”
The state of Mississippi has formally asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, and more than half of U.S. states are either certain or likely ban to abortion if the 49-year precedent is gutted or overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health think tank that supports abortion access. Many people in the South and Midwest already struggle to access abortion services.
Supporters of abortion rights warn that restrictive abortion laws disproportionately impact lower-income people, people of color and other historically marginalized groups.
They have also urged companies to take action against abortion restrictions, given the financial and workforce implications of abortion and contraception access, as well as concerns about recruitment and retention.