Joe Biden says he no longer backs federal funding ban for abortions

Democratic frontrunner changes position after criticism but makes ‘no apologies’

Former US vice-president Joe Biden at a campaign event in Berlin, New Hampshire on Tuesday. Photograph:  Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times

Former US vice-president Joe Biden at a campaign event in Berlin, New Hampshire on Tuesday. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times

 

After two days of intense criticism, Joe Biden reversed his position on Thursday night on one of the issues most important to Democratic voters, saying he no longer supports a measure that bans federal funding for most abortions.

As recently as Wednesday, Mr Biden’s campaign had said he supported the measure, known as the Hyde Amendment. His decision to change positions illustrates the intense pressure he faces as the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president.

His turnaround was abrupt, particularly because Mr Biden has grappled for decades with his views on abortion rights. While he has said he supports Roe v Wade, the 1973 supreme court ruling that made abortion legal across the US, he has opposed members of his own party on a number of abortion measures, ascribing his reluctance to his Roman Catholic faith.

In a speech at a gala hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Atlanta on Thursday night, Mr Biden credited the change, in part, to recent efforts by Republicans to roll back abortion access in states including Georgia and across the country – especially in the South – calling them “extreme laws”.

“If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” Mr Biden said. The former vice-president, who generally resists expressing contrition for the views he held in the past, noted that he made “no apologies for the last position”.

Mr Biden has been criticised for other pieces of his long political record. As a senator from Delaware he led the judiciary committee that subjected Anita Hill to harsh questioning when she accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, and he was a sponsor of the 1994 crime Bill, which many Democrats now say increased mass incarceration.

“I’ve been working through the finer details of my healthcare plan like others in this race, and I’ve been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents,” Mr Biden said. He suggested that the amendment stands in the way of his goals of “universal coverage” and providing the “full range of health services women need” when in many states the ability to gain access to abortion coverage through other means – Planned Parenthood clinics, for example – is being curtailed.

“Folks, times have changed,” he said. “I don’t think these guys are going to let up.”

Hyde Amendment

The Hyde Amendment, named for former Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, was first passed in 1976 and is renewed every year, with occasional changes to the list of exceptions. It bans federal funding of abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest and conditions that endanger the life of the mother, and it affects Medicaid funding of abortion, leading critics to argue that the measure puts a disproportionate burden on poor women and women of colour.

Mr Biden’s appearance on Thursday was part of a Democratic Party gathering in Atlanta that also drew three of Biden’s opponents: senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

A speech by Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s Democratic candidate for governor last year – who had been discussed by some as a potential running mate for Mr Biden, although both camps have disputed talk of a joint ticket – capped the evening.

In her remarks, Ms Abrams, who delivered an impassioned call for protecting voter rights, also warned against allowing the primary contest to turn too bitter. “If we are so divided by our primary that we can’t beat our adversary, then we are lost for a generation,” said Ms Abrams, who has not closed the door on the possibility of her own presidential bid.

Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights group Naral Pro-Choice America, said on Thursday that she was glad to see that Mr Biden had changed his position.

“At a time where the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Roe are under attack, we need full-throated allies in our leaders,” she said. “We’re pleased that Joe Biden has joined the rest of the 2020 Democratic field in coalescing around the party’s core values – support for abortion rights, and the basic truth that reproductive freedom is fundamental to the pursuit of equality and economic security in this country.” – New York Times