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A presidential rematch — this time with abortion at the forefront

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A presidential rematch — this time with abortion at the forefront

Feb 22, 2024 | 12:27 pm ET
By Grace Panetta/The 19th Mel Leonor Barclay/The 19th
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A presidential rematch — this time with abortion at the forefront
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Photos by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch and Alex Wong/Getty Images

Both were born decades before the Supreme Court guaranteed a right to abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision — and lived to see it get overturned.

One has ping-ponged around the issue, embracing every side of the abortion debate across his political career and taking credit for the overturn of Roe even as he publicly criticizes the stances of the anti-abortion movement.

This article was originally published by The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom covering gender, politics, and policy. The Arizona Mirror is a founding member of The 19th News Network.

The other is a devout Roman Catholic whose position has evolved steadily over his five decades in public office, from opposing most abortions and expressing discomfort with the issue, to now running on restoring the protections of Roe as he seeks a second term as president.

Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, poised for a rematch, have emerged as unlikely, sometimes uneasy, standard-bearers for their parties on the issue.

Abortion has never been the most comfortable or natural topic for Biden, 81. But he’s now placing abortion rights at the center of his campaign, even though his message of returning to Roe and his recent comments distancing himself from “abortion on demand” put him out of step with many of the advocates powering the movement.

Abortion also hasn’t been a leading cause for Trump, 77, a onetime New York liberal who described himself as “very pro-choice,” though uncomfortable with the “concept of abortion,” while first flirting with a presidential bid in the late 1990s. He championed anti-abortion causes during his first real presidential run in 2016  — and followed through on his campaign promise to appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who would end Roe.

He has reportedly embraced a 16-week national ban — and his reasoning for that specific cutoff illustrates his apathetic relationship with an issue held with fervor by many in his party: Trump favors that limit because it’s an even, round number, according to The New York Times.

“I don’t know that there’s any real fidelity to any stance on an issue unless it’s perceived to be useful — abortion being one of a very long list,” said Rosalyn Cooperman, who studies Republican candidates and political leaders at the University of Mary Washington. “If you look at what he has said over time, it is what is politically expedient.”

While polls show that voters trust Biden more than Trump on abortion, recent polling from left-leaning firm Data for Progress indicates that Trump has also so far avoided taking heat for the widely unpopular abortion bans that have gone into effect in the states.

“Abortion is still going to be a big, huge issue, especially thinking about control of Congress. But Biden and Trump themselves are two very old men,” said Danielle Deiseroth, Data for Progress’ executive director. “And pinning the abortion debate between the two of them just feels a little bit more disconnected.”

The end of federal abortion rights and the immediate wave of restrictions across the country thrust the issue to the forefront for Democrats and their leader, Biden. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, voters in several states have voted to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitutions and have elected Democrats in key races. 

Vice President Kamala Harris has taken the lead on the White House’s messaging on abortion and response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. She is, in many ways, a more natural spokesperson on the issue, having more closely aligned with the abortion rights movement throughout her political career.

Now in full-on campaign mode, Biden’s team is framing restoring nationwide abortion rights as a fundamental freedom, and directly tying Trump to what they describe as “chaos and cruelty” caused by abortion bans. Their ads and messaging highlight Trump’s comments claiming credit for Dobbs and the stories of women forced to flee their states for care.

A presidential rematch — this time with abortion at the forefront
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on preserving and protecting Democracy at Union Station on Nov. 2, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden addressed the threat of election deniers and those who seek to undermine faith in voting in the upcoming midterm elections. Photo by Michael A. McCoy | Getty Images

“Make no mistake: The person most responsible for taking away this freedom in America is Donald Trump,” Biden said at a January campaign rally in Virginia focused on reproductive rights, adding: “He described the decision as a ‘miracle’ for American women — it’s a nightmare.”

Trump has oscillated between claiming credit for the decision overturning Roe and criticizing its aftermath. He called it “a terrible mistake” that his former primary opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, signed a six-week abortion ban into law and has publicly feuded with prominent anti-abortion groups.

The New York Times reported on Friday that Trump, who has for months evaded endorsing a specific policy on a week limit for abortion, favors the idea of a 16-week national abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and threat to the life of the patient. The Times reported that Trump plans to wait until after he’s secured the Republican primary nomination to announce his stance.

Trump, who blames the “abortion issue” for Republicans’ losses in recent down-ballot elections, has also reportedly asked advisers if potential running mates are “OK on abortion” and views it necessary for contenders to support “the three exceptions” — that is, in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the pregnant person.

In a statement, Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign spokesperson, called The Times’ article “fake news” but did not dispute its facts. Leavitt said Trump would “sit down with both sides and negotiate a deal that everyone will be happy with.”

While one prominent anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, embraced the 16-week news, another activist criticized Trump for drawing a line that allows abortions in the early stages of pregnancy and “turns away pro-lifers.”

“He should pledge to sign any law that comes to his desk that stops abortion, 20 weeks, six weeks or at conception,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of the group Students for Life, adding that Trump should also support “adoption, foster care reform, and paid family leave [and] child tax credits.” Leaders of both anti-abortion groups have signaled they are open to continuing to work with Trump on the issue, continuing the transactional relationship they’ve had with him since his first campaign in 2016.

Anti-abortion advocates and Trump allies are also drafting plans for how Trump could use the power of the federal government to restrict access to medication abortion, drawing alarm from abortion rights advocates.

Trump’s vacillating on abortion, while frustrating to some anti-abortion advocates, illustrates how he’s become an avatar onto which Republican voters can impose their own beliefs, said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the nonprofit nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

“His base is very animated by social issues, but they’re also extremely loyal to Donald Trump,”  Deckman said. “And so there’s a tendency of his voters to forgive almost anything that Donald Trump says and to project their own values onto Trump’s candidacy.”

In early December, Data for Progress ran a survey that gave respondents multiple options for who they held responsible for new abortion bans. Just under a quarter of likely voters connected Trump to being responsible for new abortion bans, compared with half who identified the Supreme Court as responsible, and around a third who named Republicans in federal and state office.

“Trump has done a good job of distinguishing himself from the generic national congressional Republican brand, in part because he has muddied the waters so much,” Deiseroth said. “And I think that’s a very unique Trump phenomenon.”

That could change if Trump does embrace a specific week ban.

Democrats already have a blueprint to run against a candidate proposing a second-trimester abortion ban. In Virginia’s 2023 legislative elections, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin pitched a 15-week abortion ban as a compromise position if voters gave his party control of the legislature — which voters resoundingly rejected.

Democrats argue that the results in Virginia prove how voters dislike all government-imposed limits on abortion regardless of the week limit — and how Democrats can win with disciplined messaging focused on freedom from politicians’ interference.

A presidential rematch — this time with abortion at the forefront
Photo by Gage Skidmore (modified) | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Glenn Youngkin claimed that he had found some sort of special sauce here that he had, that they could rebrand on this issue,” Jessica Mackler, interim president of influential Democratic group EMILY’s List, said on a Friday call with reporters. “And the fact is that this is not a branding problem; it’s their agenda. That is the problem, and voters know that.”

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, called the Virginia results “a great illustration” of how Biden and Harris can position themselves as fighting for key freedoms and against Trump’s “extremism.”

“He’s been running ads and bragging about overturning Roe v Wade and taking credit for it,” she said. “This is not an issue that he has run away from whatsoever.”

Biden began his political career voting against public funding for abortions and in favor of some anti-abortion proposals. As the Democratic Party moved beyond saying abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” Biden’s position and language also shifted. He reversed his stance on federal funding in his 2020 presidential run and is running on restoring the protections of Roe in his 2024 campaign.

But Biden has rankled some in the reproductive rights movement with comments at recent campaign fundraisers citing his Catholic faith in stating he’s not “big on abortion” and doesn’t support “abortion on demand,” invoking language commonly used by abortion opponents.

“I think that he’s struggling with it in real time,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and co-executive director of We Testify, an abortion rights organization focused on elevating abortion stories and storytellers.

“And there are a lot of people that may have that similar experience, right? But, they are not the president of the United States,” she continued. “They are not hinging their entire job on their view on abortion. And I think it’s really important that he’s actually thoughtful about talking about abortion.”

Reproductive rights advocates are in unison that in any universe, reelecting Biden is essential to thwart Trump restricting abortion with or without a national ban  — even if many want to go further than the Biden campaign’s message of “Restore Roe.”

Bracey Sherman is among those deeply concerned about the consequences of a second Trump term. But she encouraged Biden to “do the homework” of meeting with those with personal abortion stories and get more comfortable with the issue “so it will show up better in the way in which he talks about it.”

“If you are the president of the United States, running on a pro-choice platform and staking your entire election on abortion,” she said, “it would behoove you to make sure that your language is in line with the movement whose coattails you’re riding to try to win this election.”