David Closson is Director of Ethics and Public Policy at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Public Discourse on September 20, 2020.
While both presidential candidates have changed their views on abortion over the past decades, their actions in recent years clarify the direction that they would likely take while in office. President Trump has maintained a consistent pro-life record in office that affects the regulations of various executive agencies and American leadership on the world stage. On the other hand, former Vice President Biden has moved to support his party’s current position of actively promoting federal funding for the abortion industry and cementing abortion as a constitutional right.
In just over a month, voters will decide whether Donald Trump has earned a second term or whether Joe Biden will replace him as president. Many issues will be affected by the election’s outcome. But of particular concern to many is abortion, which will be significantly affected by who prevails on November 3.
Earlier this fall, Democrats and Republicans presented their visions to the American people at their political conventions. Intriguingly, the word “abortion” was not mentioned a single time during the four nights of the Democratic National Convention. Joe Biden did not mention abortion in his acceptance speech, and most speakers even avoided using popular euphemisms such as “reproductive justice” or “a woman’s choice.” Only two speakers, (Raumesh Akbari and Hillary Clinton) mentioned Planned Parenthood, and only Kamala Harris (“reproductive choice”) and Nancy Pelosi (“woman’s right to choose”) used language that directly referred to abortion.
In contrast, speakers at the Republican National Convention repeatedly reminded Americans of their pro-life convictions. In his primetime acceptance speech, President Donald J. Trump gave a stirring defense of unborn life: “Joe Biden claims he has empathy for the vulnerable—yet the party he leads supports the extreme late-term abortion of defenseless babies right up to the moment of birth. Democrat politicians refuse to protect innocent life, and then they lecture us about morality and saving America’s soul? Tonight, we proudly declare that all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.”
Of course, abortion has been a divisive social issue since the 1960s. But the topic has become even more polarizing over the last few election cycles, as the two major political parties have taken increasingly contrasting views. This had not always been the case: both parties used to overwhelmingly agree that abortion should not be supported or funded by taxpayer money. But today, many Democrats—including those who control the national party—call for revoking the Hyde Amendment (the legislative provision that blocks federal tax dollars from funding abortion), increasing funding for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, and rescinding the Mexico City Policy (which blocks funding for international nongovernmental organizations that perform or promote abortion).
Both parties used to overwhelmingly agree that abortion should not be supported or funded by taxpayer money. But today, many Democrats—including those who control the national party—call for revoking the Hyde Amendment, increasing funding for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, and rescinding the Mexico City Policy.
What follows is an evaluation of the presidential candidates’ respective convictions, policy positions, and the two major party platforms regarding abortion. A careful analysis of these elements can give us valuable insight into how the 2020 election will shape the trajectory of abortion and the right to life in America.
Although Donald Trump previously referred to himself as “totally pro-choice” in 1999, the president has consistently championed pro-life policies since his inauguration. In areas such as federal funding, conscience protections, and national and global pro-life advocacy, President Trump’s administration has been remarkably pro-life, garnering praise from pro-life groups and criticism from abortion supporters. First, a mere two days into his presidency, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise regarding federal funding and the use of taxpayer money for abortion by reinstating and expanding the Mexico City Policy, which blocked funding for international NGOs that perform or promote abortion.
Second, in February 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), under the president’s direction, changed a rule to require recipients of Title X family planning money to be financially and physically separate from facilities that either perform or refer for abortions. As a result of this rule, Planned Parenthood and several pro-abortion states withdrew from the program. In the past, Planned Parenthood had received up to $60 million in annual revenue from the Title X program. As another example of the department’s pro-life policies, HHS terminated a contract it had with Advanced Bioscience Resources to procure fetal tissue from aborted babies for research.
Third, HHS has added several important regulations to protect the consciences of pro-life health care professionals. On October 6, 2017, HHS crafted two new regulations in response to the Obamacare “HHS contraceptive mandate.” These regulations created exemptions for organizations with moral or religious objections to purchasing insurance that would cover contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs and devices. HHS also proposed a new regulation that would enforce twenty-five existing laws meant to protect pro-life health care entities from discrimination by federal agencies or state and local governments receiving federal funds. The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to issue violations and investigate on behalf of abortion-related conscience complaints.
Fourth, the president has been personally supportive and willing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to support the pro-life movement. President Trump sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on January 19, 2019, promising to veto any legislation that would weaken current pro-life federal policies and laws. Moreover, during his 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump called for legislation to prohibit abortion past the point of development when unborn children can feel pain. The president exhorted: “Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life. And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: all children—born and unborn—are made in the holy image of God.” In his 2020 address, Trump called upon Congress to pass legislation that would ban late-term abortions. To highlight the need for this legislation, he told the story of Ellie Schneider, born at just 21 weeks’ gestation. In January 2020, President Trump became the first president to attend and speak at a March for Life rally in Washington, D.C.
Fifth, the Trump administration has been forthright on how it believes the judiciary should decide important pro-life cases. For example, the Trump administration released a press statement following the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down Louisiana’s state law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to nearby hospitals—a requirement still imposed on other surgical centers in the state. The statement read: “[T]he Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy. . . . States have legitimate interests in regulating any medical procedure—including abortions—to protect patient safety.” Both Supreme Court justices appointed by President Trump voted to uphold the Louisiana law. Moreover, the president has appointed over 200 judges to the federal bench—including two Supreme Court justices—who affirm an originalist judicial philosophy and apply the law as written.
Sixth, the Trump administration has advocated pro-life policies internationally. For example, the White House issued a statement on May 5, 2019 on behalf of the United States and eight other nations, calling on the world to safeguard women’s health and avoid putting abortion under the banner of women’s health. HHS Secretary Alex Azar has been similarly vocal at the United Nations about promoting women’s health while also protecting the lives of the unborn.
The preceding examples provide an overview of the various ways the Trump administration has been promoting pro-life policies. However, there are further ways President Trump could advance the pro-life movement. First, President Trump could advance international pro-life policies by applying the Mexico City Policy to domestic humanitarian organizations that do work abroad and solidify a strong pro-life position at the United Nations. In addition, the Treasury Department could ensure that abortion not be included as a medical service eligible for tax deductions and benefits. President Trump can also protect women’s health by strengthening existing FDA regulations for the dangerous chemical abortion pill. Finally, while President Trump took strong action regarding the use of aborted fetal tissue in government research, he could expand on this policy by ending taxpayer funding of human embryonic stem cell research, specifically ensuring that any COVID-19 vaccine backed by the United States not involve the use of aborted fetal cells.
Because of his extended time in public life, Joe Biden has a lengthy record on most policy issues, including abortion. However, because politicians sometimes change their minds and shift positions, we must examine both his legislative record and current campaign in order to discern where he currently stands on abortion.
Biden’s stance on abortion has tracked hard to the left over the past twenty years. As Biden’s national profile grew, he increasingly voted against pro-life legislation.
A survey of Biden’s early political career reveals a mixed record on abortion. Biden arrived in Washington as a new senator the same month the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. At the time, Biden stated that he believed the Court went “too far” in its decision. In 1974, he told a reporter that a woman should not have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
During his early years in Washington, Biden wrestled with reconciling his Catholic faith with his public policy position on abortion. This tension was evident when, in 1982, the then-senator from Delaware voted in favor of an amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe. At the time, Biden described the vote as “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.” Alluding to the influence of his faith, he added, “I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background.” However, the next year, Biden voted against a proposed constitutional amendment to ban abortion. In 1986, he voted for an amendment to the District of Columbia appropriations bill that loosened restrictions on funds that could be used to pay for abortion.
From 1995 to 2003, then-Senator Biden supported a handful of pro-life bills. In 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2003, Biden voted to prohibit partial-birth and late-term abortions. Throughout this time, he also supported the Hyde Amendment, the bipartisan legislative provision that barred the use of federal funds for abortions. He argued that, as a general rule, his personal belief concerning abortion should not be imposed on others, and the government should stay out of the contentious social battle.
However, Biden’s stance on abortion has tracked hard to the left over the past twenty years. As Biden’s national profile grew, he increasingly voted against pro-life legislation. This is reflected in his score on NARAL Pro-Choice America’s voting scorecard, which awarded Biden a perfect score in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2008. In 1999, Biden voted in favor of an amendment to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2000 “to express the sense of Congress in support of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.”
Biden has vowed to codify Roe v. Wade into law.
The former vice president’s current abortion views have come up frequently on the campaign trail. On several occasions, Biden has vowed to codify Roe v. Wade into law. Speaking at a Planned Parenthood forum concerning Roe in June 2019, he stated, “It should be the law.” On June 29, 2020, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the Louisiana law that required abortionists to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, Biden reiterated his position on codifying Roe, tweeting, “As President I’ll codify Roe v. Wade and protect a woman’s constitutional right to choose.”
Another issue that has resurfaced during the campaign is Biden’s stance on the Hyde Amendment. Despite backing it for decades, Biden reversed course last year, vowing in June 2019 to work for its removal. Biden’s shift came after he faced growing pressure from his rivals during the 2020 Democratic primaries. His campaign website now clearly states: “Vice President Biden supports repealing the Hyde Amendment because health care is a right that should not be dependent on one’s zip code or income.” Biden’s campaign has also promised that, if elected, Biden will instruct his Justice Department to do “everything in its power” to counteract state laws that limit abortion, including parental notification requirements, mandatory waiting periods, and ultrasound requirements.
During his campaign, Biden has pledged to restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. According to his campaign website, Biden will “reissue guidance specifying that states cannot refuse Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood and other providers that refer for abortions.” Biden has also promised to reverse the Trump administration’s rule that prevents Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs that offer abortion services from obtaining Title X funds. Concerning the funding and promotion of abortion overseas, Biden has pledged to end the Mexico City Policy on his first day in office.
Biden’s campaign has also promised that if elected, Biden will instruct his Justice Department to do “everything in its power” to counteract state laws that limit abortion, including parental notification requirements, mandatory waiting periods, and ultrasound requirements.
Biden and his party’s view on abortion were laid out in the recently released 2020 Democratic Party Platform. According to the platform, “Democrats oppose and will fight to overturn federal and state laws that create barriers to reproductive health and rights.” Moreover, the platform commits to “repeal the Title X domestic gag rule and restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood” and “repeal the Hyde Amendment, and protect and codify the right to reproductive freedom.”
Unsurprisingly, Joe Biden received the official backing of the nation’s largest abortion-advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood and NARAL. In their endorsement, Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Alexis McGill Johnson stated, “Joe Biden is the only candidate in this race who will stand up for our health and our rights.” She added, “This election we have a choice—between Donald Trump, whose incompetence and disregard for the law are a danger to us all, and Joe Biden, who is committed to fighting for reproductive health and rights for all.” Planned Parenthood has pledged to spend $45 million this election cycle, three times what the group spent in 2016.
Finally, Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris solidified the ticket’s status as the most pro-abortion ticket in modern American history. Harris supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, codifying Roe v. Wade, repealing the Mexico City Policy, preserving federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and making support for abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. Earlier this year, Harris voted against the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have prohibited late-term elective abortions after twenty weeks post-fertilization—the age by which unborn babies can feel pain. Harris also voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would have required health care practitioners to exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to an infant who survives an abortion as they would for any other baby born at the same gestational age.
Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris solidified the ticket’s status as the most pro-abortion ticket in modern American history.
Harris previously voted against Pain-Capable in 2018 and Born-Alive in 2019. She also voted against the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act that would have codified the Hyde Amendment and prevented federal funding for health plans that include elective abortion. Finally, as a candidate for president, Harris stated she would require federal “preclearance” for state laws affecting abortion.
After evaluating the 2020 presidential candidates’ respective convictions, policy positions, and the two major party platforms, it is clear that Trump and Biden—and the political parties they represent—have diverging understandings of women’s health and the unborn, and are working to advance two very different agendas. Despite his previously expressed personal view on the topic, while in office President Trump has maintained a consistent pro-life record that affects the regulations of various executive agencies and American leadership on the world stage. On the other hand, former Vice President Biden has moved to support his party’s current position of actively promoting federal funding for abortion providers and cementing abortion as a constitutional right for women. As a result, the 2020 election will influence the trajectory of the pro-life movement and abortion law and policy in America in significant ways for the years to come.