WASHINGTON (AP) — With few options for strengthening abortion access, President Joe Biden is trying to keep the issue front and center in the leadup to the midterm elections, when Democrats hope to harness anger over growing restrictions to keep control of Congress.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris gathered several Cabinet secretaries and other top administration officials on Tuesday in a bureaucratic show of force as they met with doctors from around the country.
“Folks, what century are we in?” Biden asked, warning that conservatives could unravel the ability to obtain birth control next. “But this is what it looks like when you start to take away the right of privacy.”
The event marked 100 days since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Most abortions are banned in at least 14 states now following a Republican-led effort, and others are weighing severe restrictions. Doctors say the laws, intended or not, have implications far beyond abortion, and have already seen problems with miscarriage care and pregnancy loss.
The ripple effects have galvanized Democrats, raising hopes that they might be able to defy political gravity that usually means the party in power loses seats during the midterms. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future, there's no path to restoring abortion rights unless Democrats expand their slim majorities in Congress.
Voting has already begun in a handful of states, and Harris said more Democrats need to be elected for their party to have the power to pass a nationwide law enshrining abortion access.
"It is important for everyone to know what is at stake," Harris said. “To stop and reverse these attacks on women, we need to pass such a national law. And so we need the American people to make their voices heard, and take a stand on the rights of all women to exercise their choice to have access to reproductive healthcare.”
Georgia law prevents abortion after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. Dr. Nisha Verma, who attended the meeting on Tuesday, said she is "being forced to grapple with impossible situations where the laws of my state directly violate the medical expertise I gained through years of training, and the oath I took to provide the best care to my patients.”
Wisconsin implemented a ban on abortion that was adopted in 1849, preventing the procedure except to save a mother’s life. The law was written before women were even allowed to vote on it.
Dr. Kristin Lyerly said she fears a prosecutor would question a decision to provide an abortion for health reasons.
“Can I count on him to trust my clinical judgement? Looking back, would we agree that I met the criteria, that my patient was sick enough?” she said. "The effects are chilling.”
Although the White House has been under pressure to take more aggressive steps to safeguard abortion, there are also concerns about provoking lawsuits that could lead to further restrictions on abortion when the cases reach the Supreme Court.
The two steps announced Tuesday are reminders of the administration's limited toolbox.
The Education Department is sending guidance to universities reminding them that federal law requires that they “protect their students from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, including pregnancy termination.” The Department of Health and Human Services will also release $6 million in new funding to promote family planning services.
In conjunction with the meeting, Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House's Gender Policy Council and the leader of the White House task force, issued a new memo outlining the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson decision.
“Close to 30 million women of reproductive age now live in a state with a ban — including nearly 22 million women who cannot access abortion care after six weeks, before most women know they are pregnant,” she wrote. “Extreme abortion bans are having consequences that extend beyond abortion, including reports of women being denied access to necessary prescriptions and contraception at pharmacies and on college campuses.”
Chris Wilson, a Republican strategist, said he believes the intense reaction to the court decision is fading, undermining Democratic chances in the midterms.
“What’s sad is the party of ‘safe, legal and rare’ has become a single-issue party where the new rallying cry is ‘anytime, any age and paid for by taxpayers’ because they know they’re way behind on the economy, on crime, and don’t even have the advantage on education that they had in years past,” he said.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, disagreed. She said voter registration has surged among young women, and they're poised for higher turnout this year.
Abortion, she said, is "one of the clearest distinctions between the candidates. So that makes it an issue that’s still very salient.”
“Republicans are battling to make it a referendum," Lake said. "We’re battling to make it a choice.”