WASHINGTON — Calling the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade a “tragic error,” President Joe Biden on Friday tried to galvanize voters before the midterm elections and called on Americans to “make their voices heard.”
Speaking from the White House, Biden said the Justice Department would defend any woman who travels to a different state to have an abortion and said the Department of Health and Human Services would make sure abortion medications were available.
But to truly protect a “constitutional right that is so fundamental,” Biden said, voters must elect candidates who will codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.
“This decision must not be the final word,” Biden said. “My administration will use all of its appropriate lawful powers. Congress must act. And your vote? You can have the final word. This is not over.”
The president’s speech, just hours after the Supreme Court overturned the nearly 50-year-old decision, signaled that Biden’s party will likely make abortion a central issue in the midterms in an attempt to energize voters at a time when Democrats are expected to face losses.
With nearly a dozen senior aides, all women, crowded to the right of his lectern, Biden said the decision “will have real and immediate consequences” and that “the health and life of women in this nation are now at risk.”
The forceful defense of reproductive rights was striking from a president who has not always been comfortable speaking about abortion. Biden, a practicing Catholic, has rarely been the full-throated backer of abortion rights that activists have sought, evolving from an outright critic of Roe early in his career to a largely quiet supporter.
In the weeks since a draft opinion of the overturning of Roe leaked, Biden has cast the possibility of the Supreme Court’s decision as one that would threaten not just abortion rights but also the right to privacy more broadly.
On Friday, Biden warned that the Supreme Court decision could have implications for other rights that Americans have come to expect — citing Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion that said the same rationale the Supreme Court used to eliminate the right to abortion should be used to reconsider decisions about contraception and same-sex marriage.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in Illinois to speak about maternal health but recast her address to focus on Roe, said the ruling would affect “decisions about the right to start a family,” including the right to use contraception.
“Today’s decision on that theory, then, calls into question other rights that we thought were settled,” including interracial and same-sex marriage.
She repeated the president’s plea to get to the polls. “You have the power to elect leaders who will defend and protect your rights,” Harris said.
Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of the Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to electing Black officials, said the president’s blunt defense of Roe could further energize his base.
“I appreciate that Biden is not being timid and is not measuring his words when it comes to this issue, which he has done before,” James said. “For him to say Roe is on the ballot, which it is, is a big thing.”
But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, who played a major role in shaping the court, described the ruling as “courageous and correct.”
“The justices applied the Constitution,” he said in a statement. “They carefully weighed the complex factors regarding precedent.”
After his speech Friday, Biden left the lectern without answering shouted questions about whether he supported ending the filibuster to codify Roe. The White House also canceled its routine press briefing.
His attorney general, Merrick Garland, said in a statement Friday that states should not ban abortion pills, such as mifepristone. Biden also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the pill could be prescribed through remote telehealth systems, as well as pharmacies.
Kevin Brunell, a Washington resident who went to protest outside the Supreme Court after Biden’s speech, said he wanted to hear more from the president than a call to get to the polls.
“I think they’re going to use it as a leveraging tool to help get people to vote, when it seems, the way that things are going, there might be some more assertive action needed,” Brunell said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think ‘Let’s wait and see what happens in November’ is going to cut it.”
Since the leaked draft of the abortion opinion was published by Politico in early May, protesters have gathered outside the homes of justices, and police have erected a fence around the court building.
Biden alluded to the tense atmosphere Friday when he asked “everyone, no matter how deeply they care about this decision, to keep all protests peaceful.”
“We must stand against violence in any form regardless of your rationale,” Biden said.
Biden already had a draft of his speech prepared before the decision that was largely written by his domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, and Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the gender policy council. After the Supreme Court ruling was issued, Biden was briefed by his chief of staff, Ron Klain, in the Oval Office, according to a senior White House official, and quickly made revisions with this team after reviewing the decision.
A number of his senior aides, including his deputy chief of staff, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, and White House counsel Dana Remus, then held several calls with human rights organizations, state attorneys general and religious leaders.
And when Biden delivered the remarks, he pointed ahead to November.
“Today the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right for the American people,” he said. “They didn’t limit it; they simply took it away.
“Roe is on the ballot,” Biden added. “Personal freedoms are on the ballot. The right to privacy, liberty, equality — they’re all on the ballot.”