Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Joe Biden’s “middle-of-the-road position on abortion” was riddled with internal contradictions from the get-go, but he still succeeded in setting himself apart from the rest of the Democratic Party leadership.
Back in 2007, Biden touted his steadfast support for the Hyde Amendment for over 30 years, a stance he described as “my middle-of-the-road position on abortion.”
“I still vote against partial-birth abortion and federal funding, and I’d like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion,” he said in his 2007 book, Promises to Keep, “but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.”
Two days ago, a Biden campaign spokesman reaffirmed the candidate’s support for the Hyde amendment, amid an escalating campaign of attacks from other Democratic presidential hopefuls and abortion rights activists who sought to isolate the frontrunner as a party outlier.
Biden’s campaign chair, Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-La., told CNN that “he is guided by his faith. His position on the Hyde Amendment has been consistent.”
When Biden repudiated that position the following day, Richmond framed the move as “a profile in courage.”
Biden pushed out a June 6 tweet that sought to present his reversal as an epiphany that capped a game-changing moment in politics.
“Women’s rights and health care are under assault in a way that seeks to roll back every step of progress we’ve made over the last 50 years. If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” read the tweet.
Finally, the “middle of the road” position on the Hyde amendment was over. And though pro-life Catholics had long viewed his stance with skepticism, many still experienced a measure of sorrow, tinged with the bitter realization that his party had made an example of him because it wanted to send a strong message: the smallest break from abortion-rights orthodoxy would no longer be tolerated.
In the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Biden was among a handful of self-identified Catholic Democratic lawmakers who described themselves as “personally opposed” to the elimination of unborn human life. But Biden, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also insisted they could not “impose” this doctrinal judgment on Americans of other faiths, dismissing the long history of legal opposition to abortion in a nation with a deep history of anti-Catholicism.
And yet, Biden supported the Hyde amendment from 1976 to the present.
During that period, he also broke ranks with his party on other abortion-related legislation and executive orders, from the Helms amendment, which sought to permanently bar federal funding of abortion, and the Hatch amendment, which asserted that the U.S. Constitution “does not secure a right to abortion,” to President Reagan’s Mexico City policy which blocked U.S. aid to international NGOs that facilitated abortions.
But if Biden occasionally earned a slap on the wrist from Planned Parenthood, he remained securely in the Democratic party mainstream, serving as vice president through two Obama administrations.
“His most recent change of heart, then, can’t accurately be characterized as a ‘flip-flop.’ It is instead a studied rejection of decades of supposedly sincere support for protecting the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” concluded Alexandra DeSanctis in a June 7 National Review column.
“It is a substantial, meaningful shift that merits a thoughtful explanation. And Biden hasn’t given one.”
DeSanctis pointed to Biden’s previous, sharp-elbowed efforts to advance his party’s goals on abortion-related issues.
Biden was “a key player in the Democratic effort to destroy the reputation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Showing his penchant for holding up a finger in the political winds, Biden initially promised to vote for Bork, but later accused Bork: of “saying that the government has as much right to control a married couple’s decision about choosing to have a child or not as that government has a right to control the public utility’s right to pollute the air.”
Given that incoherent nature of Biden’s record on abortion, it’s easy to conclude that this self-described practicing Catholic clung to this one remaining position, the Hyde amendment, as a relic of his past, a sign that he wasn’t as spineless as he could have been.
Today, Biden’s retreat underscores the enormous threat he faces from his party’s resurgent left wing, with many young lawmakers sweeping aside the nuanced positions he held so dear.
“The campaigns of Bill Clinton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they supported a repeal of Hyde, though all signed or voted for legislation that included the provision,” the Washington Post reported June 7.
“In a reflection of the recent leftward pull of the party, Biden was immediately criticized by a range of abortion rights groups, and phones started ringing with complaints.”
“Ambition Eats Joe Biden’s Conscience,” read a June 6 post from Rod Dreher, in response to the news about Biden’s decision.
The question now is whether this move will help or hurt the one Democratic candidate who appeared to have the best chance of beating Trump at the polls.
Dreher’s post linked to David Harsanyi’s series of tweets that charted the candidate’s days’ long struggle to resolve his position on the Hyde amendment, and ended with a brutal judgment:
“Biden will make the argument that his experience matters. But if he was wrong about everything, and admits it, then what does that experience mean?”