Last month, a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union cornered former Vice President Joe Biden on a rope line at a campaign event and pressed him for an answer to a simple question: Would he commit to repealing the Hyde Amendment?
As is often the case in spontaneous rope line interactions, Biden’s response was a bit meandering. Nevertheless, the takeaway from Biden’s exchange seemed clear. “It can’t stay,” he said, before quickly moving on to another person in the crowd. The entire conversation was caught on camera and shared by the ACLU’s social media accounts.
On Wednesday, Biden’s campaign confirmed that he does in fact still support the Hyde Amendment, putting him squarely to the right of almost the entire Democratic field — and at least two Republican senators — on the issue of abortion access. The footage of him seemingly vowing to overturn the amendment was the result of a misunderstanding, Biden’s campaign told ThinkProgress.
“Biden misheard the woman on the rope line and thought she was referring to the Mexico City rule, which prevents federal aid money from going to organizations overseas that perform abortions,” said the campaign in a statement.
“He supports the repeal of the Mexico City rule because it prevents critical aid from going to organizations even if abortion is a very small fraction of the work they are doing. He has not at this point changed his position on the Hyde Amendment.”
The Hyde Amendment has been included in every federal appropriations bill for more than 40 years. It bans the federal government from subsidizing the cost of abortion services except in rare cases where childbirth threatens the life of the mother or a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Efforts by Senate Republicans to make permanent the bans on federal funding have repeatedly failed, most recently in January when GOP Senators Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) joined with nearly all Democrats in opposing it. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress — including Sens. Kamala Harris (CA), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Amy Klobuchar (MN) — have co-sponsored legislation to overturn the ban entirely.
Biden’s legislative history on reproductive rights is complex. He first won a seat in the House around the same time Roe became law, and held office during a time when public opinion has undergone its own shifts.
On the campaign trail, Biden continually asserts the importance of Roe v. Wade, and has repeatedly vowed to defend legal access to abortion as president. In the Senate, he was one of just a handful of Democrats to vote against even the narrowest of exceptions to the Hyde Amendment in the 1980s.
Even his presidential campaign’s most recent comments reiterating his support for the Hyde Amendment contained a puzzling caveat. In a statement, the Biden campaign said he would reconsider his support for the Hyde Amendment if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe.
“Given the current draconian attempts to limit access to abortion, if avenues for women to access their protected rights under Roe V Wade are closed, he would be open to repeal,” the campaign told ThinkProgress in a statement.
But advocates say this implies that Roe and the Hyde Amendment are inter-related in ways that they are not. Even if Roe survived legal challenges in a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, the landmark ruling deals only with legal access to abortion services. It does not address economic access — but the Hyde Amendment serves as an impediment.
“Nearly all our presidential candidates recognize, as do a majority of American voters, that denying Medicaid insurance coverage of abortion can be the same as an outright ban,” read a statement by Destiny Lopez, the co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, which works to overturn bans prohibiting access to abortion.
“We’re hopeful that just as Vice President Biden has evolved on his support for legal abortion, so too will he advance his understanding of the devastating impact of denying coverage of abortion, especially for women struggling financially.”