White House

On Day One, the Biden White House Dodges on Abortion

‘I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic,’ says Biden’s White House press secretary.

During her first press conference on January 20, President Joe Biden’s White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, was asked by an EWTN reporter about Biden’s intentions on killing two pro-life policies: the Hyde amendment (a measure that prohibits direct federal funding of elective abortions under Medicaid) and the Mexico City Policy (an executive order that denies funding to overseas organizations that perform or promote abortion).

Psaki said she’d have more to say in the coming days on the Mexico City Policy — a measure backed by every Republican president since Reagan and rescinded by every new Democratic president shortly following his inauguration. And on Thursday, Anthony Fauci announced that Biden will indeed be scrapping the policy.

Psaki dodged on the Hyde amendment. “I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic, and somebody who attends church regularly. He started his day attending church with his family this morning,” she said. “But I don’t have anything more for you on that.”

The Hyde amendment has been the most important pro-life public policy in America for over four decades. It has survived for 45 consecutive years — regardless of partisan control of the White House and Congress — and by one estimate, it has saved 60,000 human lives from abortion each year it has been in place.

Does Psaki’s dodge on the Hyde amendment mean anything at all? It could just be that Biden didn’t want to do anything on his first day to alienate a majority of the country that opposes taxpayer funding of abortion. It’s impossible to square the calls to unity and religious themes of his inauguration with repealing the Hyde amendment — a measure that Biden himself portrayed as a policy that protects fundamental conscience rights when he supported it from 1976 to 2019.

“I will continue to abide by the same principle that has guided me throughout my 21 years in the Senate: those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them,” Biden wrote to a constituent in 1994. “As you may know, I have consistently — on no fewer than 50 occasions — voted against federal funding of abortions.”

Biden reiterated his support for the “middle-of-the-road” policy in 2008, but under pressure from progressive activists during the most recent Democratic presidential primary, he abandoned his support for the Hyde amendment in June 2019.

This made it clear that Biden would sign a bill killing the Hyde amendment if it made it to his desk, but it remains unclear whether Congress has the votes and the will to pass such a bill.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the powerful House appropriations committee, is pushing full steam ahead to kill the Hyde amendment, and Speaker Pelosi has said she’s supportive of the effort. But former Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski — who lost a primary in 2020 because of his pro-life stance — said in an interview with National Review in December that he doesn’t think Pelosi will even put a bill killing the Hyde amendment on the floor. In Lipinski’s view, Pelosi might not have the votes and it could cost Democrats the majority in 2022. Polling shows that taxpayer funding of abortion is deeply unpopular. Still, that’s just one sincere pro-life Democrat’s (informed) opinion, and it’s entirely possible the House will pass a bill killing the Hyde amendment.

If the House passes a bill ending the Hyde amendment, a lot will depend on West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin. The Hyde amendment is attached to spending bills that are subject to a 60-vote threshold, and Manchin has sworn up and down that he will not get rid of the filibuster. And Manchin told National Review in December that he is “strongly opposed” to getting rid of the Hyde amendment.

“As a life-long Catholic, I have always been pro-life and believe that the Hyde amendment ensures federal funds are not used to perform abortions anywhere in the country,” Manchin said in a written statement. “Repealing the Hyde amendment would be foolish and I’m strongly opposed to this push from some Members of Congress. If this legislation is brought before the Senate I will vote against repealing the Hyde amendment.”

Still, even if Manchin keeps his word on the filibuster, it remains possible Democrats could try to expand taxpayer funding of abortion when they pass a budget-reconciliation bill, which only needs a simple majority but is subject to complex rules. In budget reconciliation, Democrats will likely attempt to pass a government-run health-insurance program (the “public option”), and Biden explicitly cited his support for a public option as a rationale for abandoning his support for the Hyde amendment. Manchin hasn’t commented on whether he could support such a public option.

Of course, there’s no reason that a public option must fund elective abortion. In November 2009, the House passed a health-care bill that applied the Hyde amendment to the public option, but neither provision made it into law. As president, Biden could insist on supporting such a public option if that’s what he wanted. As senator, Joe Manchin could do the same. They may not be able to dodge the issue for long, and they won’t be able to hide behind their faith when it comes time to choose. And if they pass a bill that kills or weakens the America’s most important pro-life policy for the last 45 years, they won’t be able to plausibly claim that they are restoring American unity.

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