As Bernie Sanders Releases Reproductive Healthcare Plan, Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Abortion Access?

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has vowed to "fight back against the Republican assault on abortion rights," with the democratic socialist rolling out a reproductive healthcare plan on Saturday that promises to "defend a woman's right to control her own body here at home and around the world."

Dubbed the "Reproductive Health Care and Justice for All Plan," Sanders' proposal comes at a time when the future of a woman's "right to choose" has become increasingly uncertain, with the Supreme Court deliberating on a case that could see abortion care rendered inaccessible in states across the country.

If elected president, Sanders has promised to "use executive authority to undo all the damage [President Donald] Trump has done to women's reproductive freedom." One of his first priorities, according to his campaign team, will be to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a controversial legislative provision blocking the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, except in cases where a woman's life is in danger or if the pregnancy is an outcome of rape or incest.

Rosemary Boeglin, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, told Newsweek on Monday that Sanders was determined to bring the amendment—which has blocked federal Medicaid funding for abortion services since the 1970s—to an end.

The provision, she said, has long penalized low-income women seeking abortions, with those who are already among the most vulnerable being barred from receiving assistance when it comes to accessing abortion care.

Sanders' campaign team's clear focus on the Hyde Amendment draws attention to Democratic frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden's own record on the provision, which he had staunchly supported for years, right up until last June—just weeks after launching his presidential campaign.

Biden's reversal

In June, the former vice president reversed his support for the amendment following widespread backlash after his campaign team asserted that he was still in favor of the measure just days before.

Almost overnight, Biden appeared to shift his stance, telling fellow party members in a speech at a Democratic National Committee gala in Atlanta that while he made "no apologies for the last position" he held for decades on the matter, he could "no longer support" the amendment.

The former VP suggested that the driving force behind his turnaround was the wave of anti-abortion legislation being introduced in states across the country, with many anti-abortion lawmakers hopeful that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling enshrining a woman's right to abortion, might be overturned after the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh brought the court a five-justice conservative majority.

Now, Biden has said that he, like Sanders, supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, with the former vice president's campaign platform stressing that "health care is a right that should not be dependent on one's zip code or income."

In recent days, however, Sanders has drawn Biden's sharp turnaround on the Hyde Amendment into question, noting on Friday that the former vice president had "repeatedly voted" for it.

"On these issues, especially at a time when women are under severe political assault—in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in state governments all over this country where people are determined to try to take away a woman's right to control her own body—I think people all over this country, women and men, are going to look at the record of which candidate has been consistent and strong in terms of defending a woman's right to choose," Sanders said.

"The Hyde Amendment is an amendment which would deny lower-income women access to Medicaid funds in order to make their own reproductive decisions. I am very proud to say that I have a lifetime voting record in support of a woman's right to control her own body," he said.

Criticizing Biden's past support for the Hyde Amendment, Boeglin said: "You can't really believe that abortion is a constitutional right if you don't believe that abortion is a constitutional right for everyone."

"The right-wing assault on a woman's right to choose is escalating in the courts and in states all over the country," she said. "Low-income women are on the front lines of this assault"

"We can't afford to risk our fundamental freedoms on a candidate who isn't prepared to fight for us. There is no question where Bernie Sanders stands when it comes to reproductive rights. Back in the 1970s, before it was popular, Bernie was as a staunch of an advocate for choice as he is today."

Biden's campaign team has not responded to requests for comment.

On Roe v. Wade

The former vice president's past support for the Hyde Amendment is not the only aspect of his record that has drawn his stance on reproductive rights into question.

According to non-profit NARAL Pro-Choice America, during his more than three decades in the U.S. Senate, Biden has cast more than 135 votes on abortion and other reproductive freedom issues, excluding votes prior to 1980.

Approximately two-thirds of those votes were pro-abortion rights, according to NARAL's analysis.

Biden previously voted in favor of the controversial Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003, which prohibited a form of pregnancy termination that has been branded "partial-birth abortion" by anti-abortion advocates.

Initially coined by the National Right to Life Committee in the 1990s, the term "partial-birth abortion" refers to a rare procedure to remove a fetus from the womb. Biden supported the measure, despite pro-abortion groups warning that it risked seeing Roe v. Wade overturned.

Sanders, Biden
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25 in Charleston, South Carolina. Sanders recently released a plan on reproductive healthcare. Win McNamee/Getty

The former vice president's stance on Roe v. Wade has undergone a significant transformation over the years, with Biden previously asserting in a 1974 interview with The Washingtonian that he felt the Supreme Court's decision defining a woman's right to abortion "went too far."

"I don't like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don't think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body," Biden had said at the time.

In the years since, however, the former vice president has made clear that he supports a woman's constitutional right to access abortion care, regardless of what his personal beliefs on the issue may be.

Still, throughout his political career, Biden's difficulties in solidifying a stance on the abortion debate have been apparent, with the then-Delaware senator asserting in a candid 2006 interview that while he did not "view abortion as a choice and a right," personally, he did not believe lawmakers should interfere with a woman's right to choose.

"I do not view abortion as a choice and a right," Biden said in the interview, which would have taken place nearly 15 years ago and which the Sanders campaign has pointed to as an example of Biden's past views on abortion. "I think it's always a tragedy and I think it should be rare and safe. And I think we should be focusing on how to limit the number of abortions."

Biden said that there would need to be more consensus between pro- and anti-abortion rights lawmakers and advocates to come to a fair solution to the debate. That solution, he appeared to suggest at the time, should "focus on how to deal with women not wanting abortions."

"I've never known of a woman having an abortion, say, 'by the way, I feel like having an abortion today'," Biden said. "It's always a tragic decision made, always a difficult decision and I think we should focus on how to deal with women not wanting abortions."

Encouraging economic prosperity and growth, he suggested, was one way to do that.

"I might point out when there was economic prosperity and growth, the number of abortions went down by 300,000 if I'm not mistaken during the Clinton administration and they've gone up during the Bush administration in large part because of the economic stress and pressure placed on people who become pregnant," he said. "So, we should be focused on how to make it more hospitable for women to want to carry a child to term than we should be on eliminating, under any circumstances, a [woman's right] to be able to make that choice about whether or not to carry to term."

During the interview, Biden acknowledged that he was a "bit of an odd man out at my party."

"I do not vote for funding for abortion, I voted against partial birth abortion to limit it and I vote for no restrictions on a woman's right to be able to have an abortion under Roe v. Wade and so I made everybody angry," he said. "I made the 'right to life' people angry because I won't support a constitutional amendment or limitations on a woman's right to exercise her constitutional right as defined by Roe v. Wade, and I have made the women's groups and others very angry because I won't support public funding and I won't support partial birth abortion."

Ultimately, Biden said he had had his "own personal views on abortion," but, he said that imposing the views that he accepts "on faith" on "other god-fearing people seems to me to be not what my sworn oath is to do."

"For me, keeping government out of it completely is the way to do it," he said, "But, I think we should get government into it to change the circumstances, where it's more hospitable for women to decide to carry to term rather than to abort."

Protecting a 'constitutional right'

Now, as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race, Biden has sought to emphasize a firmer commitment to protecting a woman's constitutional right to abortion, with his 2020 campaign platform running almost parallel to Sanders.

In his 2020 campaign platform, Biden says he would be committed to "expanding access to contraception and [protecting] the constitutional right to an abortion."

In addition to supporting the idea of repealing the Hyde Amendment, Biden's platform says it will "reverse the Trump administration and states' all-out assault on women's right to choose" and "work to codify Roe v. Wade."

A Biden administration would also seek to "restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood," in addition to rescinding the Mexico City Policy, also known as the "global gag rule," which blocks U.S. federal funding for non-governmental organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals or advocate in favor of expanding abortion services.

With Sanders' campaign making a similar set of commitments, the Vermont senator has sought to set himself apart by underlining the fact that he has, throughout his career in the Senate, been an advocate for reproductive rights.

"Bernie has been a champion of women's reproductive rights his entire career," his reproductive health plan states. "[He] has a proud 100 percent pro-choice voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood. He has consistently voted against the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of federal funds for abortion access, disproportionately targeting low-income women and women of color." Further, it adds, "in 1972, before the Roe v. Wade ruling, Bernie criticized male politicians who 'think that they have the right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body'."

"Bernie has never wavered on the issue of reproductive freedom, and, as president, he will protect and expand reproductive rights," the plan states.

In addition to seeking to repeal the Hyde amendment, Sanders said as president he would "use executive authority to undo all the damage Trump has done to women's reproductive freedom, including reversing the "global gag" rule.

He would also seek to restore United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) funding, protect and expand funding for Planned Parenthood and codify Roe v. Wade in legislative statute and require all judicial nominees to support it as "settled law."

'Donald Trump is the single greatest threat'

While the paths Biden and Sanders took to arrive at their current campaign platforms have been vastly different, pro-abortion advocacy groups have welcomed the commitments outlined in both plans.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Kelley Robinson, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that "both former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders have made clear their support for reproductive health and rights, including repealing the Hyde Amendment, as well as their support for Planned Parenthood."

"This is the time for candidates to be bold. Whoever takes office in January will need to do more than support the right to abortion—they will need a plan to reverse the damage done by this current administration, and to increase access," Robinson said.

Refraining from throwing support behind a particular candidate, Robinson said that the "Planned Parenthood Action Fund has been encouraged by candidates who have put forth strong, proactive plans so far, and we look forward to working closely together with candidates as this race progresses to continue strengthening their policy positions."

In a statement sent to Newsweek, NARAL Pro-Choice America spokesperson Amanda Thayer echoed that sentiment, adding that ultimately, the primary focus of abortion rights advocates right now is to see the "single greatest threat to reproductive freedom" removed from office: Trump.

Thayer did not express support for any particular candidate in the Democratic race, maintaining that NARAL is "pleased that all the major candidates have coalesced around support for reproductive freedom."

That fact, she said, has "shown they understand it is a winning issue for Democrats, and demonstrated that support for abortion rights and safeguarding Roe v. Wade is the floor, not the ceiling."

NARAL's mandate, Thayer asserted, "is to fight for reproductive freedom for everybody and to support candidates who will uphold that standard in both policy and in rhetoric."

While she acknowledged that NARAL does "look at the past, we are very interested in what candidates propose for the future. And we do take into account that candidates and elected officials can—and if we're doing our jobs, they do—evolve for the better."

"Our job is to remind candidates of what's on the line for the right to access abortion, and we need their unwavering support and bold ideas now more than ever before," she said. Ultimately, Thayer asserted, "Donald Trump is the single greatest threat to reproductive freedom and we are focused on ensuring he is a one-term president."

'You know where he stands'

In an interview with Newsweek on Monday, Dr. David O'Steen, the executive director of the National Right to Life Coalition (NRLC), which has endorsed President Donald Trump for reelection, said he was committed to ensuring the exact opposite.

Trump, he said, "has been the most outspokenly pro-life president" and as a result, the NRLC has been committed to helping rally its supporters to see Trump reelected.

While O'Steen said that he believed the effect that either Sanders or Biden would have on abortion access would be "identical," he said it was clear that "Sanders has been consistently pro-abortion," throughout his career, while Biden, he said, appears willing to try to "placate" both sides of the abortion debate.

"Being Biden, there's no prediction of what he might say, or whether he even understands what he says," O'Steen said. "He will try to say things to placate pro-lifers, but in terms of what he actually does, he will be just as pro-abortion in the presidency as Sanders."

Sanders' platform, O'Steen said, at least appears to be "understandable." "It remains to be seen if Biden can articulate [his stance] in an understandable way."

Ultimately, O'Steen said, he believed Biden "may attempt to obfuscate his position depending on the audience he talks to." However, he said, that while "Biden may attempt to say, 'well, I'm personally against abortion, the bottom line is that he will do the same thing Sanders will do."

Of course, with Biden appearing to have a less clear stance on abortion rights than Sanders, the latter may be the preferred choice as an opponent to Trump in any effort to drive support for the president by appealing to anti-abortion sentiments.

Ultimately, O'Steen said that he was committed to doing what he can to see Trump reelected.

"He has done everything he could within his power and within his abilities to protect unborn children," the NRCL chief said. "I feel this is absolutely sincere."

With Trump, he said, "he says what he means and he means what he says, whether one agrees with him or not. You know where he stands."

Despite the wave of anti-abortion rights legislation being introduced in states across the country, however, Robinson insisted that anti-abortion policies are not "what people want."

Noting that more than three-quarters of people in the U.S. have said they want their elected officials to protect access to reproductive health care, with a June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll finding that 77 percent of people felt the Supreme Court should uphold Roe, Robinson said: "This is what people want."

The findings from that poll, however, were nuanced, with 26 percent of the 944 adult participants saying they would like to see Roe upheld, but with further restrictions added, while 21 percent said they wanted to see the decision widened to protect the right to abortion under any circumstance. Sixteen percent said they would want to keep Roe as is, while 14 percent said they wanted to see fewer restrictions allowed under the ruling. Just 13 percent said they wanted to see Roe overturned.