In a catastrophic failure of moral and political judgment, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden has buckled under pressure from abortion-rights activists and stated his newfound opposition to the Hyde amendment, a bipartisan rider that has prevented the direct public funding of abortion for decades.
It is no great shock that the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination would feel obliged to uphold his party’s platform, which in 2016 was rewritten to formally reject the Hyde amendment as an unconscionable restriction of a woman’s right to abortion. (Arguing that a lack of federal funding to enable the exercise of a right is an unconstitutional limitation on that right likely would draw objections from Democrats if it were applied to, say, the Second Amendment.)
But it is a shock to some, perhaps, to see Biden himself take this position. For decades, he has billed himself as a pro-life Democrat, taking the line that, as a Catholic, he is “personally opposed” to abortion. Along with former New York governor Mario Cuomo and former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, Biden pioneered the notion that prudent politicians don’t force their religious views on others, and thus that it would be wrong for him to insist on prohibiting abortion, even if his religion dictates that the procedure is morally wrong.
That formulation — aside from its incoherence and its reliance on a false notion of why Catholics oppose abortion in the first place — never stopped Biden and many other Democratic politicians from supporting Hyde. When the amendment was first added to a federal spending bill in 1976, Biden, then a senator from Delaware, supported it, and he continued to do so throughout his decades in the Senate.
His most recent change of heart, then, can’t accurately be characterized as a “flip-flop.” It is instead a studied rejection of decades of supposedly sincere support for protecting the conscience rights of pro-life Americans. It is a substantial, meaningful shift that merits a thoughtful explanation.
And Biden hasn’t given one.
If his choice appears to be nothing more than a flippant decision to toe the party line, that’s because he has treated it as just that. The last month has featured the former vice president switching his stance on Hyde no fewer than three times — he tried to explain away one of his U-turns by claiming he’d “misheard” the reporter’s question — before finally settling on opposition to it. He explained his final decision in a tweet that could just as easily have been written by an activist from NARAL.
Biden’s rejection of his decades of support for Hyde betrays the reality: He was never actually pro-life. Though he has long had a reputation as “personally opposed” to abortion on religious grounds, his political actions have merited no such label. (Nor has he ever offered a sufficient explanation for why a man who believes, for whatever reason, that abortion kills innocent human beings ought to refrain from legislating that belief.)
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was a key player in the Democratic effort to destroy the reputation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Showing his penchant for holding up a finger in the political winds, Biden initially promised to vote for Bork, but quickly backtracked and fell in line with Kennedy, who described “Bork’s America” as “a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.” Among the accusations Biden leveled at Bork: “It appears to me that you are saying that the government has as much right to control a married couple’s decision about choosing to have a child or not as that government has a right to control the public utility’s right to pollute the air.”
That successful Democratic effort to torpedo Bork led to the confirmation of Anthony Kennedy, who went on to affirm Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, authoring the constitutionally illiterate decision that upheld the Court-imposed regime of abortion-on-demand.
Later, as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden had just as much trouble maintaining his “personally pro-life” bona fides. He was complicit in the Obama administration’s effort to provide a fig-leaf to “pro-life” Democratic politicians during the fight over whether the Affordable Care Act would expand public funding for abortion. Though the administration issued an executive order attempting to make it appear as if taxpayer money wouldn’t be used to subsidize elective abortions, in reality, the final ACA dramatically expanded such funding.
But even with 60 Democratic senators and 258 Democratic members in the House, the party never attempted a direct assault on Hyde and never attempted to impose direct federal funding of elective abortions under Medicaid. Obamacare managed to squeak through only because the Left pretended it didn’t expand taxpayer funding of abortion at all.
Aside from underscoring his decades masquerading as a pro-life Democrat, Biden’s most recent act of spinelessness illustrates the strong political pressure from extreme abortion-rights activists on the Left. Though a slim majority of Americans oppose using tax dollars to fund abortions, groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL have driven the Democratic party to reject even that insufficient compromise.
For them, nothing less than the unlimited right to abortion — for any reason, until the moment of birth, fully abetted by the U.S. taxpayer, regardless of religion or conscience — will do. By embracing their position, Biden has shed the last pretense of moderation on abortion, capitulated to the extreme voices governing his party, and alienated moderate voters who might once have thought of him as their best option in the Democratic presidential race.