Yesterday, we watched Joe Biden give his first address to a joint session of Congress as president. COVID-19 relief? Check. Gun violence? Check. Jobs and childcare? Check and check. Access to abortion and reproductive health care? Not a single mention. In a speech that touted bold vision and an appetite for real change coupled with themes of American exceptionalism and leadership, this was an unacceptable omission.
Commitments to reproductive health and rights that omit explicit mention of abortion leave a crucial piece of comprehensive care on the table and contribute to a culture of secrecy and stigma, which studies show have negative impacts on people’s mental and physical well-being.
Sure, Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right in 1973, but state legislatures have passed more than 500 abortion restrictions in the past decade alone. The result: 89 percent of counties in the U.S. still don’t have a clinic that provides this fundamental care. And since a majority of people seeking abortions are living at or below the poverty line, the constitution won’t help if you can’t find a clinic, don’t have enough money to get to the nearest one, or can’t get past the red tape installed by lawmakers.
“If you think reproductive health is not as urgent of an issue as COVID-19 relief, please know that abortion care is in crisis: Multiple states have passed laws that would make abortion unconstitutional and chip away at Roe v. Wade while stringent TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws make it nearly impossible for some clinics to provide abortion care at all. Reproductive care is health care.”
President Biden can and must change the state of abortion in this country and set the tone for the rest of the world. Here’s how.
Normalize abortion care.
For meaningful change to come, Biden can and should be the first president to talk about abortion like the safe and common experience that it is. This is a crucial step to reducing shame and stigma, not to mention it is politically expedient. The simple fact is this: Three-quarters of Americans believe the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy should be between a pregnant person and their doctor—and 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45.
Recent research commissioned by the National Women’s Law Center shows that when leaders talk about the values that underlie their support for abortion, such as freedom or autonomy, it resonates with voters and strengthens and deepens support for abortion. But abortion is treated in public discourse, even by leaders who support abortion access, as something to be avoided. The sense of stigma that this perpetuates in pregnant people instills feelings of isolation, judgment, and fear of community condemnation. In order to change that narrative, leaders who support abortion must speak their positions out loud.
Yet so far, the Biden-Harris administration has fallen short. President Biden’s January 22 press statement on the Roe v. Wade anniversary did not even use the word “abortion.” And the first time his press secretary was asked about Biden’s position on abortion policy, she referred only to the president’s Catholicism.
Remove restrictions on abortion from our laws and budgets.
For nearly 50 years, Roe v. Wade has provided a constitutional right to abortion, but—in part because of subsequent Supreme Court decisions that whittled away the right—it does not guarantee that abortion is available and affordable, especially for low-income people, young people, and Black and brown communities.
President Biden has already taken action to undo some of the harmful restrictions the Trump Administration put into place, such as reversing the global and domestic gag rules and temporarily lifting unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion so that patients will no longer have to travel in person to receive this kind of care during the pandemic.
But there are restrictions elsewhere in our federal laws and budgets. For example, the Hyde Amendment denies coverage to individuals enrolled in the Medicaid program and forces 1 in 4 lower-income women seeking an abortion to continue their pregnancy. And the Weldon Amendment has been used to penalize states that want to protect abortion.
These barriers, along with other existing restrictions, prevent real and meaningful access to abortion care for anyone who needs it—wherever they live, whoever they are. Biden must eliminate these barriers, including writing a federal budget without abortion restrictions.
Champion policies that truly support abortion access.
Although the Biden-Harris Administration has made a commitment to codify the constitutional right to abortion, that is not enough. We need Biden to use his power to do more. Let’s get specific:
President Biden must champion measures like the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act. These are bills that reverse decades of efforts by anti-abortion politicians to make it difficult—if not impossible—to access abortion and that truly support people in accessing abortion care. Federal lawmakers need to hear from the president that this is a priority for his administration, just as they need to hear from you.
Establish a high-level office focused on reproductive health.
President Biden established a Gender Policy Council, an office focused on advancing gender equity and equality throughout the federal government. While that is critically important, it is not enough.
A dedicated office is needed to address the onslaught of federal and state restrictions on abortion that keep people from obtaining abortions. It’s needed to address the maternal mortality crisis so that women—especially Black and Indigenous women—will stop dying from pregnancy-related complications. It’s needed to stop attacks on contraception.
Failing to talk about abortion, as Biden did last night, is unacceptable. Rhetoric riddled with vague euphemisms is no longer an acceptable expression of support for abortion. People across the country are demanding dramatic change to their ability to access the care they need—and they deserve obvious, loud support for seeking it.
The Biden-Harris administration must make a choice: Will they continue to perpetuate stigma and stay silent on this crisis? Or will they be leaders who finally recognize that to be of the people, by the people, and for the people means to be of, by, and for bodily autonomy, reproductive freedom, and true abortion access—once and for all?
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