Can Pro-Lifers Sway President Biden on Abortion?

Analysts say it will be difficult, but must be tried. Catholic engagement will be key.

Members of the pro-life community participate in the "March for Life," an annual event to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the US, outside the US Supreme Court in  Washington, DC, January 29, 2021.
Members of the pro-life community participate in the "March for Life," an annual event to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the US, outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, January 29, 2021. (photo: Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty)

Less than a month in office, Joe Biden is already poised to become the most abortion-friendly president in U.S. history. 

Not only has he already made standard pro-abortion moves for a Democrat assuming the office, such as removing restrictions on U.S. dollars funding abortions abroad, but Biden also seems intent on expanding abortion access to an unprecedented extent. 

He has expressed his commitment to do away with the Hyde Amendment, a longtime compromise measure that prevents taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions as part of Medicaid, and has also stated his intention to enshrine abortion rights into law.

Faced with these difficult circumstances, many in the pro-life movement may be wondering if there’s any hope of productively engaging with this administration to make any modest steps toward eliminating abortion, or to at least protect ground already gained.

“Well, the only way to be sure of failing is not to try,” Richard Doerflinger, the former associate director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register. 

Doerflinger, who now serves as an associate fellow at a variety of pro-life institutes, points to pro-life success in past scenarios when an expansion of abortion access seemed all but guaranteed. For example, pro-lifers succeeded in preventing an abortion mandate from being included in President Bill Clinton’s 1993 health-care bill, which ultimately failed to pass; prevented the Freedom of Choice Act from coming to a vote in the late 2000s; and have blocked past attempts to remove the Hyde Amendment.

“I think it’s very important to unify the Church around specific goals and not to despair, not to give up hope,” added Doerflinger.


Shifting Dynamics

If the most recent abortion-friendly administration is any guide, the Catholic Church and its pro-life commitments may at least have a seat at the table with Biden as president. 

Jayd Hendricks, the USCCB’s former executive director of government relations, said the Obama administration “had an open door” to the bishops, in large part due to Catholic initiatives serving the poor.

Hendricks said that when it came to policy, the bishops’ conference and President Barack Obama often disagreed. But the Church’s ability to be in conversation with the White House at the time allowed it to achieve, or at least come close to achieving, important pro-life measures in Obama’s health-care reform that wouldn’t have been possible if the Catholic voice had been sidelined.

Maintaining open communication could matter even more with someone like Biden in the Oval Office. The president is a Massgoing Catholic who says his faith is important to him, and he’s likely to be open to what the bishops have to say. 

When it comes to abortion, Biden was previously considered one of the more moderate Democrats; he has said that he personally believes “abortion is always wrong” and supported the Hyde Amendment up until the 2020 primaries, when he changed his opinion to better align with his party to secure the nomination.

But now that he’s in office, is there a chance that Biden, the consummate politician, changes tack and hews back to the middle?

Signs aren’t hopeful, in large part due to party politics. Hendricks said the Democratic Party of today has defined itself by its commitment to unrestricted abortion access, reaching a level of uncompromising rigidity unseen even a few years ago. For comparison’s sake, he noted that, in 2010, 64 Democrats voted to include the Stupak Amendment, which would bar federal funds from paying for abortions or insurance plans covering abortion, to the House version of the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t know if you get three votes for that today,” said Hendricks, adding that unqualified support for abortion rights has become “the litmus test” of the Democratic Party. 

Biden may buck his base on a number of issues, but abortion rights isn’t likely to be one of them. The new president has made a point of highlighting his support for abortion rights, releasing a statement with Vice President Kamala Harris on the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade declaring his intent to codify the precedent into law. 

Pro-life groups like National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) are also concerned by the nomination of abortion-rights activists to key roles in the Biden administration, especially the selection of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It has been made clear which direction the president and his administration will go,” said Laura Echevarria, NRLC’s director of communications and press secretary.


Supply and Demand

With Biden, and more significantly the Democratic Party, eager to expand abortion rights, the pro-life movement will be playing a lot of defense in the coming years.

In addition to pointing out the threat against the Hyde Amendment, Doerflinger identified two key pieces of legislation that pro-lifers should be prepared to fight. The Equality Act would include abortion access as a civil right on the basis of sex, effectively removing prohibitions on federal funding and framing resistance to providing coverage for abortions in health care as a form of illegal discrimination.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, which is often described as codifying Roe, would effectively eliminate hundreds of constitutional state laws that provide modest regulation of the abortion industry. Biden has indicated his support for both measures.

“None of these agenda items were done by any previous Democratic administration, not even by the Obama administration, where Joe Biden was vice president,” said Doerflinger. “These are new extremes that must be fought very strenuously in terms of means.”

Advocacy groups will be monitoring proposed legislation and executive actions and providing pro-lifers with ways of staying informed and taking action. 

The U.S. bishops’ conference, for instance, offers a service that allows users to send prewritten messages on important issues to their legislators and other public officials. Advocates stress the importance of pro-life people sharing with their lawmakers how they feel about abortion and related legislation, even if the lawmaker in question might be “pro-choice.” 

While the Biden administration’s priorities will necessitate protecting limits to abortion access already on the books, some in the pro-life community are also pointing to opportunities to address the socioeconomic factors that contribute to the “demand” for abortion. 

“Rather than only complaining about the Democrats’ approach to life issues from the supply side of abortion, we should make every effort to work with them on the demand side,” said Charles Camosy, an ethicist at Fordham, highlighting measures like paid family leave and increased childcare support. 

Camosy — a former board member of Democrats for Life of America who quit the Democratic Party during the 2020 primary campaign because it had become so hostile to pro-life perspectives — has also suggested that the time may be ripe to push for a European-style “grand bargain” as a temporary compromise on abortion, limiting the practice to a small window of pregnancy while also increasing levels of public support for pregnant women and families. He also suggested to the Register that a focus on “prenatal justice” from the perspective of racial justice may also gain bipartisan support.

Policy experts like Hendricks agreed that there are opportunities to address the “demand” side, but argue this approach can’t come at the expense of efforts to curtail legal access to abortion.

“It’s a both/and,” he said, pointing to a recent analysis at The Pillar website that suggests the relationship between poverty and abortion is not as strong as is often suggested.

Catholic commentator Mary Eberstadt, who recently penned a Newsweek column urging President Biden to demonstrate his alleged personal pro-life convictions by speaking to the March for Life, said if Catholic politicians like the president were genuinely “personally opposed” to abortion, they would demonstrate it by supporting emergency pregnancy centers and Catholic adoption agencies.

“Instead, the policies of the ‘personally opposed’ work against every one of these vital charitable undertakings — and others.”  


Catholic Engagement

Appealing to Biden’s Catholic sensibilities may be the most fruitful route for achieving at least some degree of moderation on abortion. But one aspect complicating this path is public division amongst Church leaders on how to engage with the president. Some, like USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez, have not hesitated to publicly point out where Biden’s agenda deviates from Catholic teaching, while others, like Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, have called this type of approach ill-advised.

Hendricks suggested this lack of a unified front will give cover for Catholic politicians like Biden to “cherry-pick” which Church teachings they follow. He said something similar happened with negotiations around Obamacare, when the Catholic Health Association supported a compromise that the USCCB found unsatisfactory, ultimately allowing the measure to pass under the cover of Catholic support.

One way to do away with any confusion related to abortion in the American context: hearing from the Holy Father on the issue. During the Trump administration, Pope Francis didn’t hesitate to offer not-so-veiled critiques of the president’s policies related to immigration. 

“The Holy Father was right to be critical of Donald Trump on the basis of Catholic teaching, and he would be right to be critical of President Biden on the basis of Catholic teaching,” said Camosy, who has written an open letter to the Pope urging him to make prenatal justice a central part of his pontificate.

Whatever the practical measures taken, Hendricks believes Catholics must continue to engage the Biden administration in ways that are politically prudent, but ultimately committed to eliminating abortion.

“There are essential principles that the Church cannot and will never negotiate away,” said Hendricks. “And at the end of the day, the Church would be failing in its prophetic voice if it didn’t speak to the injustice of abortion.”