With the Supreme Court expected to deliver a fatal blow to abortion rights this June, activists on the front lines are making a new plea to President Joe Biden: Get out of the White House and spotlight the fight that’s begun.
Those working for clinics in states taking steps or poised to immediately outlaw abortion say a Biden visit would inform how the White House responds to the final high court ruling, which is expected to overturn 50 years of federal protection for abortion in the coming weeks. It also, they argue, would be a savvy use of the bully pulpit to draw attention to an issue Democrats hope will motivate voters this fall.
“It would be great if [Biden] came to Mississippi, Texas and Florida. That’s where he needs to be,” said Michelle Colon, the executive director of SHERo Mississippi, an abortion rights advocacy group. ”I know Mississippi is not a political player so the Democrats, they write us off, but we still are here and we still vote for them and support them. Everybody just wants to be acknowledged and we want to know that they have our backs.”
Zachary Gingrich-Gaylord, spokesperson for Trust Women, which runs clinics in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan., said Biden could play a critical role in battling abortion stigma simply by coming to their door on a non-patient day.
“If you have the most powerful office in the nation during the greatest health crisis since Covid apparently unable to say what is happening, that doesn’t support this effort very well,” said Gingrich-Gaylord. “We have known and been saying for months now that, ‘Hey, all of this is happening while Roe is still in place.’… People will be hurt, people will die. And we have also known this was coming for some time.”
Frontline abortion providers say that while they’d like to see a Biden visit, they haven’t formally asked for one. And, so far, the White House does not appear to be planning one.
A White House official said the administration’s engagement with abortion providers, advocacy groups and the public around the pending Roe decision will intensify. The official added that the White House also will continue to collaborate with members of Congress, state legislators and those on the front lines as it explores all options available to protect abortion access. But the official did not address whether the president or his team plan to travel to any of the affected states.
Administration officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have held listening sessions with abortion providers and patients since Texas’ privately enforced six-week abortion ban took effect last year. The White House has held at least seven listening sessions on abortion and reproductive rights in the last eight months, not including regular calls between administration officials and stakeholders. In April alone, one White House Gender Policy Council official held calls and virtual meetings with 11 legal experts and abortion and reproductive groups.
The Gender Policy Council, meanwhile, has weighed possible executive actions Biden could take to shore up abortion access in response to the fall of Roe. But one week after POLITICO reported the details of the Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe, the White House has yet to formally preview additional actions it could take.
Instead, Biden has conceded that the administration’s tools to protect access to abortion are limited — as evident when he urged voters to elect more “pro-choice” senators and House members in November. He has immediately moved to frame the threat as stretching beyond abortion, warning it would put other civil and privacy rights at risk, from contraception to marriage equality.
Nearly half of states are poised to immediately ban abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned. Some, including Michigan and Wisconsin, have pre-Roe bans on the procedure still on the books that would go back into effect if the court rules against the precedent. A dozen others, including Oklahoma and Mississippi, have passed so-called trigger laws in the last several decades that would “trigger” a total abortion ban if the high court rules against Roe. Other states may move quickly to enact hefty punishments on those who try to skirt those bans. Texas, for one, will be able to charge abortion providers with a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison and Oklahoma will be able to incarcerate them for up to five years.
Progressive lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree they need to grow their ranks via the November midterms if they want to have any hope of passing abortion rights bills going forward. But they say Biden must use the tools and inherent powers of his office before the midterms to bring attention to the issue.
“He can use his bully pulpit to talk about how important this right is, how important it is for women that we get to control our own bodies,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told POLITICO.
Congressional Democrats are set to vote on a bill to codify Roe into law this week. But with it certain to fail the Senate on Wednesday, advocates are demanding executive actions from Biden. The ideas they’ve discussed with the administration include ramping up enforcement against states that kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid and insurance companies that refuse to cover birth control. They also want the administration to lift the remaining FDA restrictions on abortion pills, loosen restrictions on coverage of abortion for active service members and veterans and provide some form of coverage through Medicaid for people who have to cross state lines for the procedure.
Whether these agency actions move forward or not, advocates working to maintain access to both abortion and contraception in states pushing or considering restrictions say Biden has a role to play in illuminating the stakes of that legal landscape — and may even learn something himself in the process.
Audrey Sandusky, the spokesperson for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, hopes Biden will travel to states already dealing with funding cuts and limits on clinics to “see the scrambling that’s now happening among providers trying to care for their patients.”
And Morgan Hopkins, a leader of the abortion rights group All* Above All, says she and others are communicating as much as possible with the administration about avenues the president can explore to assist those “already living in a post-Roe reality.”
“We would love to see him go to a place with existing restrictions or that will be incredibly impacted by the Supreme Court’s expected ruling, and actually talk to people who have had abortions,” she said. “He has such a big platform to educate the public about what’s at stake.”