For 468 days, supporters of Roe v. Wade called on President Joe Biden to say the word “abortion.”
Once he finally did, however, some of them almost wished he hadn’t.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have asked him to say ‘abortion,’” Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization that represents those who have had abortions, told The Daily Beast. “Like, be careful what you wish for.”
Speaking on a tarmac hours after the astonishing publication of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that cemented the right to abortion access, Biden last week used the word for the first time since he entered office—and quickly followed it up with a phrase that you’re more likely to hear from abortion opponents than abortion supporters.
“The idea that we’re going to make a judgment that is going to say 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,” Biden said.
Biden’s use of the phrase “abort a child”—as well as his near-exclusive preference for language about “women’s health” or “reproductive choice” or making “Roe the law of the land”—reflects career-long discomfort discussing abortion, one longtime adviser told The Daily Beast.
“It is not an easy topic for him,” the adviser said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about one of the most sensitive subjects within the Biden campaign.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, the Biden insider said, policy briefings on issues like federal funding for abortion services were uncomfortable both for Biden and those discussing abortion. “It’s an issue that conflicts with his faith so directly, more than almost any other, maybe. He spent a lot of time working to get where he is,” they added.
The White House has pointed to Biden’s current positions on abortion issues as more important than his ability to discuss the procedure, which he has called a “fundamental” constitutional right. He supports the legal codification of the right to abortion, overturning the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions on funding for abortion, and repeal of the “Mexico City” policy that blocked federal dollars from funding organizations that provide or support abortion access.
But supporters of the right to abortion say he is clearly the wrong messenger in a moment of unprecedented crisis for the movement.
“President Biden has the power and opportunity to protect abortion access, but he is not leveraging any of it,” said Denise Rodriguez, the head of communications for the Texas Equal Access Fund, which works to provide financial support for people seeking abortion services in a state that has come close to banning the procedure entirely.
The phrase, Rodriguez said, “shows us that he is not quite comfortable talking about abortion, even though there is nothing wrong with it and the majority of Americans support it.”
Abortion providers and activists say phrases like “abort a child” are even worse than the president’s previous silence due to the implied moral judgement of those who undergo the procedure. This, they ray, risks further stigmatizing a medical decision few who have undergone it feel they can safely discuss.
That stigma, Sherman explained, is part of what has pushed the abortion-rights movement to the brink of its greatest loss in half a century, and has provoked fears that Biden “is not equipped to lead in this moment.”
“He’s recycling anti-abortion talking points,” Sherman said, adding, “That is really, really concerning.”
Supporters of abortion access have pointed to the relative success of the push for LGBTQ rights, particularly the battle for same-sex marriage—a cause that was far more unpopular than abortion not too long ago. They pointed out that campaigns for same-sex marriage and non-discrimination legislation quickly found that the single most effective way of changing someone’s mind about LGBTQ rights issue was for them to personally know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
But although one in four American women has an abortion over the course of their life, abortion-rights supporters say that the immense stigma about the issue may have contributed to a failure for support of abortion rights to make a similar shift in public opinion.
“Abortion stigma makes life harder for people in general, but especially people who have had abortions or are seeking them,” Rodriguez said. “It warps the narrative so that people view abortion as something bad—when it is absolutely a public good—which causes them to avoid talking about it or publicly supporting it.”
Part of the issue is that it is easy to articulate anti-abortion sentiment, said Dr. Louise King, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and a gynecologic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Abortion opponents are perhaps ‘better at articulating a simple or coherent message’ because their message is too simple,” said King. “It doesn’t take account of a person’s bodily autonomy, nor a society that does not provide for parents or children in a meaningful way, nor the complexities that arise in obstetrical care.”
Despite leading a party that has made abortion access a key part of its platform, and a key part of its election strategy, Biden’s personal discomfort discussing the issue extends back decades. A churchgoing Catholic, the president said in the year after Roe was decided that the Supreme Court went “too far” in ruling that the U.S. Constitution’s implied right to privacy extended to the decision to have an abortion.
“When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother,” Biden told Washingtonian in 1974. “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.”
Over the subsequent decades, Biden moved towards a center-lane position on abortion, increasingly holding back from discussing his personal views on abortion but never quite moving in lockstep with most fellow Democrats.
“I’m a little bit of an odd man out in my party,” Biden described himself on the issue in 2006, shortly before launching his second of three runs for the White House. “I do not vote for funding for abortion. I voted against partial-birth abortion, to limit it, and I vote for no restrictions on a woman’s right to be able to have an abortion under Roe v. Wade.”
With that record, Biden said at the time, “I’ve made everybody angry.”
The White House characterizes these past positions as ancient history, the inevitable byproduct of five decades in political life. But in addition to his refusal to use the word in office until the Supreme Court’s impending overturning of Roe, the abortion question has still dogged his recent political career. In May 2019, then-candidate Biden told reporters that he supported repealing the Hyde Amendment—before his campaign alleged that he’d misheard the question and that his position had not changed.
Weeks later, Biden told an Atlanta audience that his feelings on the matter had, in fact, changed—that he couldn’t justify “leaving millions of women without access to the care they need.”
The administration has redirected nearly all questions about the president’s personal feelings on abortion to matter-of-fact recitation of his policies on the issue and has aggressively shut down questions about whether the use of the phrase “abort a child” undermines those positions.
“The president’s view on a woman’s right to make choices about her own health care is well-known, well-documented, well-stated,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told Fox News’ Peter Doocy last week, when asked about Biden’s language on abortion.
“He said ‘abort a child,’” Doocy followed up. “Is that—”
“I understand, Peter,” Psaki interrupted curtly. “But what I’m telling you is what his position is.”