Biden's big speech showed his uneasy approach to abortion, an issue bound to be key in the campaign

FILE - President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, March 7, 2024, in Washington. Seated at left is Vice President Kamala Harris and at right is House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. Biden made abortion and reproductive rights a central theme of his State of the Union speech, but he never mentioned the word "abortion." Pushback over how he addressed the issue is the latest example of Biden's fraught history with the topic. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP, File) (Shawn Thew)

WASHINGTON – Reproductive freedom took center stage during Biden’s State of the Union address, but abortion rights advocates had mixed reactions, raising concerns about the president trying to capitalize on what will be a central campaign issue while avoiding using the word “abortion.”

Abortion rights have proved to be a potent issue driving voters to the polls and boosting Democrats since the U.S. Supreme Court ended a constitutional right to the procedure nearly two years ago. The issue could be pivotal in the presidential race and congressional contests this year.

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During Thursday’s speech, Biden deviated from his prepared remarks, skipping over the word “abortion” and instead using the phrases “reproductive freedom” or “freedom to choose.”

The word was used once in his prepared remarks, when he introduced Kate Cox, first lady Jill Biden’s State of the Union guest and a Texas woman who was forced to flee the state for an abortion after finding out her fetus had a fatal condition. The text had Biden saying, “Because Texas law banned abortion.” Instead, he said “Because Texas law banned her ability to act.”

It’s common for elected officials, especially Biden, to go off script or make in-the-moment tweaks for a host of reasons.

“By not saying the word ‘abortion,’ it implies that it’s taboo or something to be ashamed of,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio. “It’s stigmatizing and harmful. The president should do better.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which manages abortion clinics in Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia, said there was an “uproar" across the organization as staff members texted their reactions to each other.

“Abortion is what we provide and what people are being denied,” she said. “People don’t call us for a reproductive freedom appointment. They don’t ask for a bodily autonomy visit or a choice procedure. They call for abortion care, and abortion is a professional medical term for the health care we provide. Avoiding the word just shows the power of the historical stigma around abortion.”

The pushback over how he addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech is the latest example of Biden's fraught history with the topic. Many in the abortion rights movement have long viewed him as an imperfect messenger.

Biden initially opposed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, saying it went too far. He also opposed federal funding f or abortions and supported restrictions on abortions later in pregnancy.

The Biden campaign's strategy is to let the president be who he is — an 81-year-old Catholic man whose views on the issue have evolved and who still doesn’t use the word abortion much. His aides also want to highlight his evolution on the issue and how he still grapples with what can be an uncomfortable topic but believes firmly in the freedom of choice.

“Donald Trump on the other hand has repeatedly used disgusting and derogatory language when referring to women, and he will institute a national abortion ban," said Lauren Hitt, spokesperson for the Biden campaign. "The choice in this election is incredibly clear."

Trump has taken credit for appointing three Supreme Court justices who made overturning Roe v. Wade possible.

Biden's aides believe they can reach a broader swath of voters by framing the issue around reproductive freedom, as the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has moved beyond access to abortion and into areas such as IVF and birth control.

The strategy might appeal to some voters but alienate others, said Sophia Jordán Wallace, a political science professor at the University of Washington.

“The question is if people sincerely believe that this framing is because he’s thinking about abortion plus other issues or whether he’s using that framing to avoid saying the word ‘abortion’ due to discomfort,” she said,. She added that Biden could be more explicit about how his perspective on abortion has changed, something many voters may be able to relate to.

“That’s a story they can tell,” she said.

Polling has found that Americans broadly support abortion rights, and voters in seven states have either affirmed the right or defeated attempts to weaken it since the Supreme Court ruling. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in June 2023 found that about two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. Another survey conducted later that year also found that 60% of U.S. adults think the outcome of the 2024 election will be very important for abortion policy.

Many advocates say they want to see Biden offer more full-throated support for abortion rights in particular and have said they sense discomfort in his approach to speaking on the topic.

“Abortion could very well be the issue that the election hinges on,” Nourbese Flint, president of the national abortion justice group All(asterisk) Above All Action Fund. "If President Biden wants to speak to the American electorate, whatever their faith, he should use his bully pulpit to be bold on abortion access.”

The State of the Union address was the latest showcase of Biden's complicated relationship with the topic.

He told The New Yorker last week: “I’ve never been supportive of, you know, ‘It’s my body, I can do what I want with it.’”

Last month in New York, Biden referred to himself as a “practicing Catholic” before saying, “I don’t want abortion on demand, but I thought Roe v. Wade had it right.” He used similar words on the 51st anniversary of that court decision.

And during a Maryland fundraiser last year for his reelection campaign, he said: “I’m a practicing Catholic. I’m not big on abortion. But guess what? Roe v. Wade got it right.”

Advocates also have criticized Biden’s use of the phrase “abortion on demand,” which they say was once an abortion rights rallying cry that was co-opted by the anti-abortion movement.

“Those comments around ‘abortion on demand’ are tied to stigma around abortion,” said Dr. Jamila Perritt, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Still, she said, “We need to make clear that we are much better off under that leadership than under those who want to ban abortion outright.”

Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to restore Roe v. Wade protections, and his administration has made several moves to improve reproductive health care access. That includes defending the FDA's approval of the abortion drug mifepristone and supporting the agency in allowing pharmacies to get certified to dispense the drug.

Federal agencies under his administration also have improved abortion access for veterans and service members, issued guidance reminding abortion providers of their federal protections when performing abortions during medical emergencies, and filed lawsuits to defend the right to travel to another state for abortion care.

Biden has been endorsed by major abortion rights organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Reproductive Freedom for All, whose CEO, Mini Timmaraju, praised Biden for speaking "powerfully about the harms of abortion bans and attacks on IVF” in his State of the Union remarks.

Biden used part of his address to thank Vice President Kamala Harris, who has embarked on a multistate reproductive freedom tour.

Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at State Innovation Exchange, called Harris a “champion for abortion rights," but said, “We also need the president to be vocal on this issue.”


Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Linley Sanders contributed to this report.


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