As expected, President Joe Biden this past week reversed the Trump Administration’s expanded Mexico City Policy that prohibited federal funds from going overseas to nongovernmental organizations that perform abortions or refer clients to abortion providers.
That Biden signed the executive order on the eve of this year’s virtual March for Life was “a deeply disturbing move,” as Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Defense and Education Fund, tweeted.
Rescinding the Mexico City Policy on the eve of the March for Life is a deeply disturbing move, especially when the president says he wants national unity. It goes against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Americans. 1/2
— Jeanne F. Mancini (@jeannemfl) January 28, 2021
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also had some choice words.
— U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) January 28, 2021
Whether you regard the the president’s move as grievous or the timing of his executive order as “deeply disturbing,” it was no surprise that Biden, a Democrat, rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which has been a political yo-yo in the national abortion debate since President Ronald Reagan first instituted the policy in 1984.
Republican presidents since Reagan have upheld the policy while Democratic presidents have always overturned what pro-choice activists have described as a global gag order. Biden’s executive order continues that trend.
From a purely political standpoint, Biden didn’t have much to lose in rescinding the Mexico City Policy. This is a matter that would generate, at best, a day or two of coverage in the mainstream press. The Mexico City Policy is an issue of public policy that really only moves dedicated people on both sides of the abortion divide who already have strong feelings for or against the current president.
But if Biden takes stronger measures to enshrine and expand access to abortion, such as his campaign promises to “codify” Roe v Wade and repeal the Hyde Amendment, the president risks unnecessarily inflaming public opinion on a divisive issue while he talks a good game about unifying an already deeply-divided country.
Biden, a longtime supporter of the Hyde Amendment, reversed his position early in the campaign after other Democratic candidates and party activists criticized him for supporting the annual provision that prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, with the exception of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life. Before the Hyde Amendment was first enacted in 1980, an estimated 300,000 abortions were paid for with federal tax dollars in the prior seven years, according to a 2019 National Public Radio report.
The Hyde Amendment is not an unreasonable piece of public policy. Several public opinion polls over the years show that a plurality of Americans oppose public funding of abortions. Even if they think Roe v. Wade was correctly decided and that abortion should not be made illegal, the polling has shown that most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of their tax dollars being used to fund abortions for Medicaid recipients.
As for “codifying” Roe v. Wade, what Biden is promising is to enshrine into federal law the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that declared abortion to be a constitutional right. Polling has consistently shown that a majority of Americans actually do not support overturning Roe V. Wade, but they also don’t believe that abortion is an absolute “right” either. If “codifying” Roe v. Wade means stripping away state and federal laws that regulate abortion clinics, require parental notification for minors who want to terminate pregnancies, or that restrict the conditions that an abortion can be performed, then you can expect the president to have a really big fight on his hands that would consume his White House.
When he was in the U.S. Senate, Biden originally criticized Roe as having gone too far. He also embraced the Hyde Amendment as an effective way to protect taxpayers’ consciences. While it generated occasional debate, the amendment was never a deal-breaker during the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, even Donald Trump.
However, the country’s political center is fraying as the extremes on the left and right move the parties further away from each other. In abortion politics, we saw this in the 2016 presidential election, when the then-Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, vowed to push to repeal the Hyde Amendment. It was a far cry from the days when Clinton, just four years earlier, had said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
But by 2016, the Democratic Party’s activist-donor base – after eight years of controlling the White House – had become more strident and uncompromising in its pro-choice stance. Clinton followed the shift, which in hindsight didn’t help her with moderate voters in swing states who were already weary of her and had Trump whispering in their ears that he would revitalize the country’s manufacturing base.
In normal times, the Democratic Party may have reassessed its hardline litmus test on abortion after Clinton’s loss in 2016. But Trump’s dysfunctional administration – not to mention his stomping over democratic norms, his racism, corruption and divisive style – energized the Democratic base and drove out new voters in such record numbers that the party’s new purity standard for abortion politics became an afterthought in the political press. In the meantime, pro-life Democrats like Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski were defeated in primaries while others like Charlie Camosy, a former board member of Democrats for Life of America, left the party altogether.
Biden would surely anger his party’s base if he were to reverse course on the campaign promises he has made on abortion policy. But if Biden really wants to unite the country, not just appeal to Democratic activists and donors, then he should quietly abandon the push to codify Roe or repeal Hyde, and instead focus solely on pressing matters like COVID-19 relief, restarting the economy and continuing to undo Trump’s counterproductive policies on the environment and immigration.
It would require some real political courage, but if Biden were to eschew his party’s uncompromising abortion politics and successfully lower the temperature on the country’s partisanship, then Biden could maybe even carve out the political space necessary for the nation to have a frank, honest and civil abortion debate where the truth of the pro-life message could be heard and received by more Americans. That would be something worth celebrating.