Abortion Rights Supporters See Biden Address as Missed Opportunity

During the midterm campaigns, Democrats spent months focused on the demise of federal abortion rights and the danger they said it posed to all Americans.

In his State of the Union speech, President Biden spent roughly 42 seconds.

The White House says that it used the moment to call on Congress to reinstate the protections provided under Roe v. Wade, and that it has taken the most aggressive approach to abortion rights of any administration in history. But some abortion rights supporters said they saw the brief mention as a missed opportunity to leverage the power of the bully pulpit in what they often describe as a national health crisis. They were also mystified that the president passed up a chance to play up his own record, which nearly all praised.

“President Biden’s remarks on the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade were disappointing and a lost opportunity,” said Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which argued the case over Roe at the Supreme Court. “As demonstrated resoundingly in the midterms, abortion rights are a kitchen-table issue that Americans care deeply about, and highlighting that reality would have fit into the president’s theme of fundamental fairness.”

The White House believes President Biden has most likely reached the legal limits of his powers through executive actions on abortion issues.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

The criticism reflects Democrats’ limited options on the federal level, as the fight has shifted to state legislatures. The issue became a potent tool for the party in the midterms, energizing voters and staving off some expected defeats. But after Democrats lost control of the House, it became all but impossible for them to fulfill promises to reinstate a federal right to abortion.

Since the court ruling in June, Mr. Biden has signed a series of executive orders protecting access to medication abortion and contraception, ensuring emergency medical care for pregnant women and protecting patient privacy. But at times his administration has fallen short in activists’ eyes, including in declining to declare a national emergency over the summer. The administration says such a measure wouldn’t offer any new tools to combat the restrictions.

The White House believes Mr. Biden has most likely reached the legal limits of his powers through executive actions, leaving few options other than rallying voters and providing assistance to Democratic state legislators working to stop or undo restrictions.

Biden’s State of the Union Address

  • Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
  • State of Uncertainty: Mr. Biden used his speech to portray the United States as a country in recovery. But what he did not emphasize was that America also faces a lot of uncertainty in 2023.
  • Foreign Policy: Mr. Biden spends his days confronting Russia and China. So it was especially striking that in his address, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role.
  • A Tense Exchange: Before the speech, Senator Mitt Romney admonished Representative George Santos, a fellow Republican, telling him he “shouldn’t have been there.”

Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, praised Vice President Kamala Harris’s efforts and called Mr. Biden the “most pro-choice reproductive freedom president” in history, saying abortion rights got more attention than in any previous State of the Union.

“The tension is that he represents a lot of progress, but it’s never going to feel like enough because we’re in a crisis,” she said. “Everybody in our community wishes we had more of the president’s time, more of the president’s attention, more presence in that State of the Union, but that being said, I keep going back to judging this administration on what they’re getting done.”

On Tuesday night, Mr. Biden mentioned the battle over abortion rights an hour into his 80-minute speech, typically a moment for presidents to outline their priorities.

He did not propose any new policy initiatives on the issue. Nor did he describe the struggles of the guests invited by a number of Democratic lawmakers and the first lady, Jill Biden, who represented the issue. Dr. Biden brought a Texas woman who almost died from sepsis after the state’s abortion restrictions caused a delay in treatment for her pregnancy.

“Congress must restore the right that was taken away in Roe v. Wade and protect Roe v. Wade,” he said. “The vice president and I are doing everything to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient safety. But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans.”

He added, “Make no mistake about it: If Congress passes a national ban, I will veto it.”

Any sweeping abortion action remains unlikely given the divided control of Congress. Democrats lack the votes in the Senate, and Mr. Biden is unable to grant Roe’s protections through executive action.

His brief remarks cut a striking contrast with the deluge of words about the issue from Democrats during the midterm elections, when the candidates and their allies spent nearly half a billion dollars on ads mentioning abortion — more than twice what they spent on the next top issue, crime, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.

Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, has spent years wrestling with his faith and Democratic politics over the issue, generally supporting abortion rights but personally opposed to the procedure. But since the ruling, he has been more vocal about his disagreement with the court and his support for Congress’s legislating a federal right to an abortion.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, at the Capitol last month. The end of Roe energized Democratic voters in last year’s midterms.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Since the midterms, Mr. Biden has largely delegated the issue to Ms. Harris, who has hosted dozens of events with state leaders to discuss abortion access. Last month, on what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe, she warned that “no one is immune” from efforts to curb access to reproductive health care.

In a statement released after the speech, Planned Parenthood Action Fund highlighted the nine abortion patients, providers and advocates invited by Dr. Biden and Democratic lawmakers as guests to the speech. The group “is grateful to have a trusted partner in the Biden administration,” it wrote, and declined to offer additional remarks.

While they’ve been pleased with this administration’s actions, some leaders of the abortion rights movement would like to see Mr. Biden talk more specifically about plans to expand access to the procedure.

“We really wanted to hear what the administration is prepared to do for the current reality of abortion access and the continued threats that exist across the country,” said Morgan Hopkins, president of All* Above All, a reproductive justice coalition. “We didn’t hear that.”

The moment is particularly fraught, as activists and the administration await a ruling as soon as this week in a Texas case brought by conservative groups seeking to revoke a more than two-decade-old federal approval of mifepristone, a common medication abortion pill. The decision will be made by a single judge, Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee known for his conservative views on social issues.

Given that medication accounts for more than half of abortions and that the pills have become a way for some women to circumvent state bans, a ruling against the drug could have sweeping impacts. Any appeal of the decision would go to the right-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and, eventually, to the Supreme Court with its conservative majority.

Last week, Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, met with abortion providers at a clinic in Alexandria, Va. And a number of agencies, coordinated by the White House, are planning for a variety of outcomes, though they are limited in terms of executive actions.

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