Joe Biden’s announcement that he was reversing his long-held opposition to federally funded abortion was met with applause at a Democratic gala, but 2020 rivals and some women’s groups greeted it with barbed skepticism.
His flip-flop ended a multi-day stumble over the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal spending on most abortion services. The former vice president has long supported it, though support for its repeal has fervent support among the Democratic base and even made it into the party’s 2016 platform.
“I can’t justify leaving millions of women without the access to care they need,” Biden said Thurday, a day after being harshly criticized by fellow Democrats and abortion-rights advocates for his earlier stance.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat running for the nomination, responded quickly, tweeting, “Bravo to @JoeBiden for doing the right thing and reversing his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment. It takes courage to admit when you're wrong, especially when those decisions affect millions of people.”
“Now do the Iraq War,” he added.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who was criticized for responding to Biden’s initial waffling by calling the former vice president “Dr. Jekyll,” manually retweeted a reporter’s timeline of Biden’s struggles with the issue, asking hopefully: “Now can I do the Dr. Jekyll tweet?”
Other Democratic candidates were slightly more subtle in their digs, but made sure to let their supporters know that, unlike Biden, their support for repealing the Hyde Amendment has not wavered.
“The Hyde Amendment limits women's access to safe, legal abortion—particularly women of color,” tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a mere three minutes after Biden tweeted that “I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee quickly followed suit a few minutes later: “I opposed the Hyde Amendment in 1993. I oppose it today. I will never back down.”
Some of the most high-profile women’s groups in the country—Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and others—issued statements condemning Biden’s initial support for Hyde on Wednesday. The National Organization of Women even called on Biden to rescind his support for the law or consider withdrawing from the race.
On Thursday, several of these same groups issued muted statements thanking him for reversing his stance. NARAL President Ilyse Hogue noted that “leadership is often about listening and learning,” and Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock called it “the right call.”
Others, however, were less forgiving. Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, told The Daily Beast she appreciated Biden’s comments, but said he needs to prove his change of heart to voters.
“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Yes I support the repeal of the Hyde Amendment,'” she said. “We know that he has struggled with this issue over the course of his service to this country and we need to hear what that evolution really means, beyond a few talking points at a fundraiser.”
Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of women’s rights group UltraViolet, said she was troubled by Biden’s explanation that he only recently realized “circumstances have changed” when it comes to abortion access. States have passed more than 400 restrictions on abortion in the last decade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and nearly 40 percent of all U.S. women live in counties without an abortion provider.
“This has been a reality for millions of people for a very, very long time and the fact that he didn't know that, didn’t understand that, and that it wasn't factoring into his original position is one of the problems with him wanting to be the candidate and wanting to lead the party,” Thomas said.
Thomas and others believe initial Biden’s support of the Hyde Amendment was a ploy to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. But a source inside a liberal political organization said the former VP’s waffling on the issue would hurt him with black women voters, who are disproportionately affected by restrictions on abortion access.
“When candidates flip-flop on abortion they are blatantly ignoring voting blocs like black women who have consistently supported Democratic candidates,” she said. “We’re at a moment when playing those types of political games won’t work in the future, because black women are sick of being used as a pawn.”
Thomas, however, said the speed with which Biden changed his stance showed the political power of women and their advocates.
“It’s important that whether [politicians] are personally with us or not, that still have to take that position because it’s politically untenable not to do,” she said. “And that’s a reflection of the power we’re building.”