(WASHINGTON) — In his speech responding to last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision reversing the guarantee to abortion access, President Joe Biden urged Americans to vote on the issue — to both elect local leaders who would ensure the availability of abortion in their states as well as Democrats to Congress where he would like to see a law passed cementing a nationwide right to an abortion.
Within minutes of Biden’s remarks, there was a collective eye roll from many progressive activists, reproductive health care advocates and even fellow Democratic lawmakers online.
Then Friday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps and that eye roll from the left turned into a groan.
“‘Vote!” and fundraising emails are the Democrat’s version of ‘thoughts and prayers,'” Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders who is a favorite in progressive circles, wrote on Twitter.
Monica Lewsinky echoed that, writing: “It’s not a time for words -poems + singing on the steps. Time for action: get rid of the filibuster, pack the f—- court + codify roe. at least put up a fight.”
Across the country, there were scenes over the weekend of pro-abortion access protesters chanting lines like “Democrats we call your bluff, voting blue is not enough” and backlash on the far-left over fundingraising emails and texts sent by the Democratic National Committee asking for “rush” donations to support candidates who would fight back against abortion opponents.
“If you are a lawmaker who, in the time between the leak & ruling, spent more manpower on a fundraising plan than a policy response, then I highly recommend rethinking your priorities. Our job right now is to protect people. Doing so will drive the vote more than browbeating,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, retweeting a video of young female voters who said they were frustrated that Democrats had not acted to codify Roe into law years ago — with Democrats in turn saying they have been stymied by the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Biden has said repeatedly that only Congress can pass a law to fully reestablish the right to an abortion nationwide and that he is looking for steps he can take within the bounds of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal dollars being spent on abortion care except to save the life of the mother or in an instance of rape or incest.
But without the current votes to pass a national abortion access law, Democrats in the House and the Senate have put forward a number of other policy proposals they think the president could still act on, even in light of Hyde, before the midterm elections.
Members of Congressional Black Caucus specifically called on the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency, arguing that that would free up federal dollars to perhaps support clinics in blue states expecting a surge of new patients from red states that have or will soon forbid abortion in all or most cases.
“In this unprecedented moment, we must act urgently as if lives depend on it because they do,” the group of lawmakers wrote in a Friday letter to the White House, citing the country’s high rates of maternal mortality compared to other developed nations, especially among Black women.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health Education and Labor, expressed frustration over the weekend that the Biden team was not ready with a plan for executive actions the day the decision came down, especially after a draft of the opinion was leaked more than a month ago.
In a letter to the White House in early June, Murray and others urged the administration to start looking at ways to protect patients’ personal health and location data as well as look into whether reproductive health services could be provided on federal lands or on federal property.
“I want President Biden to do absolutely everything in his power to protect access to abortion in America—let’s really push the envelope to protect women in this country, and let’s do it now,” Murray told ABC News in a written statement Monday night, adding that she understood that there were limits to his authority.
Leaders and activists pushing this idea about using federal land have argued that Hyde was designed to prevent the use of federal funds for paying for abortion services — most commonly to prevent women on government-run health insurance from being able to get abortion care paid for or reimbursed by the government. But they say that in leasing space, the government would be making and not spending money.
‘I think they were ready’
Other abortion access supporters took a different view on how the White House has responded, though they agreed that they wanted Biden to do more.
“I think they were ready for moment,” said Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL. “I think their reaction — although it came a little earlier than we all planned — was robust.”
Timmaraju said she was “pleased” with Biden’s remarks and “heartened” by his and Vice President Kamala Harris’ work so far, but she said that “I definitely think we need to see more specifics” about what the White House has announced so far such as access to medication for abortions and protecting women who travel to other states for care.
She added that she was “empathetic to the situation that they’re in” since it was “hard to have more specifics when we were waiting to see the parameters of what the court was going to decide.”
Asked about the use of federal lands on Monday, Harris told CNN, “It’s not right now what we are discussing.” A White House official told ABC: “While this proposal is well-intentioned, it could put women and providers at risk.”
Others have wondered if, within the bounds of Hyde’s restriction, federal funds could be used to help women with abortion-related expenses, like traveling out of state, or to offer abortion services to victims of rape in states, like Arkansas, where new bans do not have such exceptions.
Responding to some of these calls to action, a White House official told ABC News in a written statement, “We are going to continue to look at everything we can do, consistent with Hyde, to protect a woman’s right to choose but Hyde generally prohibits funding abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. Unfortunately, there are not enough votes in Congress to repeal it, just like there are not enough currently to restore Roe. This also makes the case for why we want more members of Congress who share our view on the urgency of this.”
Talking with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz on “This Week,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren doubled down on the idea of using federal lands to make abortion care as available as possible. Warren, like Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers, also asked the president to lay out plans to make medication abortion available across state lines.
Biden said Friday that he was directing the Department of Health and Human Services to try to “take steps to ensure” that contraception and medications like mifepristone, which can end an early pregnancy, are as widely available as possible.
Other reproductive health care advocates have argued the White House could and should help provide more information at a minimum, with state laws changing rapidly and creating so much confusion for patients.
Timmaraju, the NARAL president, said the White House Gender Policy Council and the vice president’s office have held “a ton” of listening sessions and roundtables and have been talking to providers and lawyers about what’s possible.
Both Timmaraju and another reproductive rights advocate called on Biden to declare a national public health emergency like the government did for COVID-19.
The advocate, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said Biden should speak out more.
“We appreciate that the Biden administration obviously came out very quickly to take a stand, but they can and they should do more,” this person said. “The No. 1 priority must be to reduce harm, and they’ve got to use the bully pulpit as much and as often as they can to raise awareness.”
While the federal government launched ReproductiveRights.gov, Timmaraju and the other advocate said they wanted the White House to take further action to ensure more access to information.
“There is so much uncertainty and unknown” about the abortion pill, for example, the advocate said. “That is information that the Biden administration can and should put on that website.”
“How can anyone be satisfied with the speed when a right was taken away and it immediately prevented people from accessing health care in their states?” the advocate said.
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