One year after the anti-abortion ruling, the White House keeps a spotlight on the issue

In the year since the Supreme Court overturned the national legal right to abortion, President Joe Biden has made little progress toward restoring access

Chris Megerian
Thursday 22 June 2023 16:52 BST

One year ago, Democrats suffered one of the most stinging political defeats in recent history as the Supreme Court, which had been methodically stocked with conservative appointees, eliminated the nationwide right to abortion.

Unbowed on Saturday's anniversary, however, it's the White House, not Republicans, who are calling the most attention to the issue with a cascade of events designed to tap into simmering rage from the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“I don’t think people are tired," Jennifer Klein, the White House point person on gender policy, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think people might be mad. I think there’s a lot of fear out there. But I feel like that turns into power.”

First lady Jill Biden met this week with women who were denied abortions even though their health was at risk. Vice President Kamala Harris appeared in an hourlong televised special in Dallas and will travel to North Carolina on Saturday for a speech.

The capstone of the effort comes on Friday, when President Joe Biden will appear at a rally with abortion rights groups in Washington. The first lady, the vice president and her husband, Doug Emhoff, will also be there, a rare joint appearance by all four.

It's an inauspicious anniversary for the White House to highlight. The high court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opened the door for a wave of abortion restrictions across the country, and the limits are also affecting how women get medical care for miscarriages and pregnancies.

More constraints could be on the horizon as conservatives seek to limit access to mifepristone, a commonly used abortion pill, in a separate legal case.

But while Republicans have struggled to find their political footing on the issue, Democrats recognize that the loss of abortion rights helped them forestall greater defeats in last year's midterm elections and that the issue could prove just as potent as Biden runs for reelection next year.

“People keep thinking and hypothesizing that the issue is going to diminish in its power. Well, not really," said Celinda Lake, a pollster who has worked with the president.

“Twenty years from now, we may point to this as a realigning moment," she said. “It’s moved a lot of suburban women out of the Republican Party and into independents.” She also said younger voters could end up "more Democratic for the rest of their lives.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, draws the opposite conclusion from the midterms.

“We had a poor showing, in my opinion, because Republican leadership took on the ostrich strategy," Dannenfelser said.

Their mistake, she said, was not celebrating the victory and campaigning on what she described as a compromise of restricting abortions after 15 weeks. Dannenfelser said liberals want “unlimited abortion, paid for by taxpayers," and "that aggression ... on the part of the abortion lobby is going to come back and bite their candidates.”

“You get consensus, and contrast that with an extreme, and you win," she said.

A survey conducted by Gallup last month showed that support for abortion drops the longer a pregnancy continues, from 69% of U.S. adults saying it should generally be legal for the first trimester to 37% for the second trimester.

However, in general the issue appears to be more motivating for supporters than opponents, according to VoteCast, a survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted for for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

During the midterms, 37% of those voting for Democrats said the overturning of Roe v. Wade was the single most important issue for them, as opposed to 13% of those voting for Republicans.

Klein said there’s no reason to think that Republicans are interested in a compromise, especially after implementing strict laws in various states over the last year.

“They want to pass a national abortion ban,” she said, while the White House wants to turn Roe v. Wade into law.

Accomplishing that White House goal, however, seems as far out of reach as an outright ban. Republicans control the House, and Democrats don't have enough support in the Senate to advance legislation on their own. Biden has taken some limited steps with executive orders, but none that can override state restrictions.

“It’s hard,” Klein said. “I mean, there is only so much an administration can do. And we are using all the tools in our toolbox.”

Mini Timmaraju, leader of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said advocates have made some political progress, such as winning several fights over ballot measures last year, but she warned that the path ahead will be arduous.

“Let’s just be clear, there’s no getting better right away,” she said.

Biden, who is Catholic, was ambivalent about abortion early in his political career as a U.S. senator from Delaware. Soon after getting elected in 1974, he said the Supreme Court “went too far” with Roe v. Wade.

However, he's often described abortion rights as a matter of personal liberty. One of the first images in Biden’s video announcing his reelection campaign was a woman holding a sign saying “abortion is healthcare" outside the Supreme Court. The president’s first word is “freedom.”

“The question we’re facing is whether in the years ahead, we’ll have more freedom or less freedom,” he said. “More rights or fewer.”

Harris has played a leading role on abortion since the Dobbs decision, which was released while she was on a flight to Illinois for an event on maternal mortality. Her first step was to call her husband, Emhoff, to vent.

“He was the only one that I could really just let it out with,” Harris recalled this week during an appearance with Joy Reid on MSNBC.

She spent the rest of the trip rewriting the draft of her remarks and reviewing the text of the decision.

“Millions of women in America will go to bed tonight without access to the healthcare and reproductive care that they had this morning,” Harris said in her speech back then. “Without access to the same healthcare or reproductive healthcare that their mothers and grandmothers had for 50 years.”

Since the Dobbs decision, Harris has hosted almost 50 meetings in 16 states to talk about reproductive rights, with a particular focus on local lawmakers who have a frontline role in abortion debates.

“There is a deep recognition among state legislators that every one of their voices count,” said Neera Tanden, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "We see incredible engagement and activism at the local level to protect women’s rights as well.”

Alexis McGill Johnson, who leads the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said she has no doubt that advocates will remain energized going into next year.

“I think there’s something really insulting in the way pundits have conjectured, ‘Oh, they’re not going to care about their rights being gone next year,’” she said.

“Our literal ability to control our bodies has been given to politicians,” she said.


Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Linley Sanders contributed to this report.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in