Jacobin - August 2018
The only problem is, it’s Joe Biden. If you thought Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate, with her transactional style and triangulating policy stances, then you probably won’t be excited by Biden’s multi-decade history in the Senate.
Apart from Clinton’s inept campaigning and inability to connect with voters, Biden shares many of the same red flags that led a large share of the Democratic base to look with suspicion on the former secretary of state.
In the ongoing “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” few issues have been bigger flashpoints than abortion rights. Both Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez have both faced criticism for suggesting the party should in certain circumstances back candidates that didn’t have stellar records on abortion (even though this didn’t actually describe Keith Mello, the candidate Sanders was backing), while the inconsistencies of some of those who have criticized that position have aroused doubt about their motives. The president of NARAL Pro-Choice excoriated Sanders for his support of Mello, for instance, but enthusiastically backed Clinton’s choice of the Hyde Amendment-supporting Tim Kaine as VP.
Wading into this debate will be Joe Biden, who has what can generously be described as a mixed record on abortion rights. While he has, like many pro-life Democrats, “evolved” on the issue over time, what sets Biden apart is that even this evolution has carried him only to what he himself describes as a moderate position on the issue.
For the first few decades of his career, Biden waffled between restricting abortion rights and defending them, though generally leaning toward the former. He started his Senate career as a self-described social conservative who disliked Roe v. Wade, griping that it “went too far” and that he didn’t think “that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
For the next eight years, his actions in Congress toed this line.
Biden defeated a 1977 amendment that would have removed all restrictions on federal funding of abortions, for instance, voting instead for a rider that actually removed the already existing exception that allowed federal funding of abortions in cases of incest and rape. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the toughest ever anti-abortion measure.”
In 1981, Biden successfully proposed what became known as the “Biden amendment” to the Foreign Assistance Act, barring US aid from being used for biomedical research related to abortions. Biden has had a lasting legacy in this respect: to this day, the amendment has remained a part of the laws covering foreign assistance.
The following year, Jesse Helms attached an amendment to a must-pass bill to raise the debt limit that permanently barred federal funding for both abortions and abortion research and training. Biden voted in favor of it multiple times. Even more extreme was that year’s so-called Hatch Amendment, which in practice would have overturned Roe v. Wade by letting either states or Congress decide the question of abortion — whichever was “more restrictive.” Though it was unsuccessful, Biden voted on the Senate Judiciary Committee to move the bill forward on a close 10-7 vote, one of only two Democrats to do so. A year later, however, he changed his mind and voted against it.
Biden’s 1983 about-face on the Hatch Amendment, one of the most radical attempts to curb abortion rights then and since, didn’t mean he suddenly became a pro-choice champion. According to a handy report produced by the National Right to Life Committee (NRCL), in 1983, Biden voted five times to bar the Federal Employees Health Benefits program from funding abortions for federal employees, a measure that ultimately became law.
He also voted for the Hyde Amendment — a landmark victory for abortion rights opponents that finally barred federal funding of abortions — as well as for extending the Hyde Amendment to apply to the federal Bureau of Prisons. He supported an amendment that praised Reagan’s “Mexico City policy,” which withheld federal funds from foreign NGOs performing abortions, including the International Planned Parenthood Foundation. Under that policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” even counseling women on abortions would get an organization blacklisted.
It’s no wonder, then, that a Planned Parenthood official complained to the Wall Street Journal in 1986 that Biden “usually votes against us,” adding that it was “difficult to know whether this issue is purely personal, purely political, or a combination of both with him.” ...
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