Joe Biden reversed his position Thursday night on a key issue to Democratic voters, revealing he no longer supports a measure that prohibits using federal funds to cover most abortions.
The former vice president's campaign had said he backed the law, known as the Hyde Amendment, as recently as Wednesday. His decision to throw out his long-held support of the measure came amid mounting backlash from within the Democratic Party and highlights the challenges the old-school liberal faces as the presumed frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination in 2020 in a primary field, which features a host of progressive candidates.
His reversal was abrupt, particularly since Biden has wrestled for decades with his views on abortion, ascribing his reluctance to his Roman Catholic faith. In a speech at a gala hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Atlanta, the former vice president did not mention the mounting pressure or criticism he has received in recent days, instead crediting the change as part of developing an upcoming comprehensive healthcare proposal.
Biden began his speech by affirming his support for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion, and noted that he, "like many" in Congress, supported the Hyde Amendment for years, because he believed women would still have access to the procedure without Medicaid and other federal health grants. Now, he said, the ability to obtain an abortion through other means — Planned Parenthood clinics, for example — is being whittled by Republicans.
"I can't justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to . . . exercise their constitutionally-protected right," Biden continued. "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."
Biden, who is looking to pitch a centrist approach in an increasingly progressive primary field, explained that the Hyde Amendment is another barrier to abortion access, which disproportionately affects poor women and women of color.
"I've been working through the finer details of my health care plan like others in this race, and I've been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents," he said.
Biden noted that "circumstances have changed" and reasoned that the measure stands in the way of his goals "universal coverage" and providing "the full range of services women need." He said he made "no apologies" for his decades-old support of the policy.
Biden has come under renewed scrutiny for other details of his decades-long political record in the months he announced his presidential campaign. As a senator from Delaware, he led the Judiciary Committee that subjected Anita Hill to aggressive questioning from an all-male, all-white panel when she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. He has also faced criticism for his efforts to pass the 1994 crime bill, which many Democrats and President Donald Trump say helped contribute to mass incarceration, and supported the Iraq War.
The Hyde Amendment, named for former GOP Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, was first passed in 1976 and is renewed annually by Congress. It bans federal funding of abortion, allowing exceptions only in cases of rape, incest or when a pregnant person's life is at serious risk. Reproductive rights advocates have argued the law disproportionately affects women of color and poor women who seek abortions, because it prevents government health programs, such as Medicaid, from paying for abortions in most circumstances.
Biden had been one of only a few Democratic politicians who backed the Hyde Amendment — and his support for the measure marked a sharp split form most of his 2020 competitors, as well as from the Democratic Party's platform. 2016 marked the first year in which the party amended its presidential platform to explicitly call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, describing it as among the "federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion."
"The Democratic Party platform is crystal clear in supporting the right to safe, legal abortion and repealing the Hyde Amendment, a position held by the majority of voters," Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement Wednesday in response to Biden's support for the position. "Supporting Hyde isn't good policy or politics."
The news of his support for the measure prompted several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to quickly weigh in — and attempt to distance themselves from the vice president on the issue.
"There is #NoMiddleGround on women's rights," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Biden's next-closest rival, said Wednesday. "Abortion is a constitutional right. Under my Medicare-for-all plan, we will repeal the Hyde Amendment."
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, shared a video of himself calling to abolish the measure.
"No matter your income or where you live, every woman should have access to health care, including abortion," he said.
Other contenders, such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have all co-sponsored legislation to overturn the amendment.
Sen. Cory Booker of New York and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg have previously pledged to repeal Hyde, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, tweeted their opposition to the amendment Wednesday.
Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Thursday that she was glad to see Biden had reversed course.
"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 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."