Biden should do a primetime address on abortion

The president needs to definitively own the issue in a way that feels commensurate with its seriousness. 

Welcome to my new free and premium subscribers! The Handbasket is fully supported by paid subscriptions, and I couldn’t keep doing this work without you. Not a premium subscriber yet? Upgrade here!

This week has reinforced the fact that abortion is one of the central issues of the 2024 presidential election. Voters have two distinct choices in November: A man who will protect the right to abortion, and a man who will not. So why doesn’t it seem that way?

Donald Trump took on abortion on Monday in a way that only he could: clumsily contradicting everything the staunchly pro-forced birth Republican has said on the issue in the past. 

In a video posted to Truth Social, he started off by affirming support for IVF, then taking credit for overturning Roe, and then repeating the heinous lie that pro-abortion advocates want to allow babies to be born and then executed in the ninth month of pregnancy. 

Then he got to the crux of his supposed newfound thinking:

“My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint. The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land. In this case, the law of the state. Many states will be different. Many will have a different number of weeks or some will have more conservative than others, and that’s what they will be.”

As fate—or a higher being with great dark comedic timing—would have it, the very next day the Arizona Supreme Court voted to uphold an 1864 law outlawing abortion in nearly any circumstance. (It should be noted that Arizona did not become a state until Valentine’s Day 1912—the same year the Titanic sank.) And then for good measure, the Arizona legislature voted Wednesday to uphold the state supreme court’s decision. 

Wednesday evening the New York Times declared “Two Imperfect Messengers Take On Abortion,” a baldly ridiculous headline when you look at the substance of the two presidential candidates. Nevertheless, I understand what they were getting at: Despite being given an absolute slam dunk, homerun, touchdown of an electoral issue—as proven by numerous other elections—Biden has yet to definitively own it in a way that feels commensurate with its seriousness. The practicing Catholic president still treats abortion like a relative he was forced to invite to the party. And that needs to change.

Now is the time for Biden to put aside any personal misgivings and focus on the greater good. Now is the time for Biden to draw clear lines that say: “In a second Biden term, abortion will be legal in as much as the country as possible. In a second Trump term, it will be illegal for millions of Americans.” 

The best part about this approach, for Biden at least, is that he doesn’t actually have to modulate his personal views at all. He’ll be able to distinguish himself from Trump just by stating facts backed up by history. Trump has no such history to fall onto, and quite the contrary: Despite his Wednesday assurances that he wouldn’t sign a national abortion ban, no one in their right mind believes him. Abortion access is as safe with Trump as it would be with the ghost of Phyllis Schlafly. 

Biden has come out strong this week, releasing an ad featuring Amanda Zurawski, a Texas woman who was denied an abortion and nearly died shortly after the procedure was banned in her state. Zurawski has become one of the faces of the crisis. At the end of the ad, text flashes across the screen that says: “Donald Trump did this.”

And as we’ve seen, there has been zero downside in the last two years in going all in on abortion. 

In August 2022, just two months after Roe was dismantled, Kansas held a statewide vote on an amendment to the state’s constitution that would’ve taken away the right to an abortion. It was seen as the first high-profile test of whether the Supreme Court’s ruling would have a major impact one way or another on electoral patterns. The answer was a resounding NO to the constitutional amendment, and a big YES to maintaining abortion rights.

The day after the auspicious vote I did one of my favorite interviews ever with Sarah Jane Russell, a Kansas-based reproductive rights activist who’d had her boots on the ground there for 50 years. I just want to quickly revisit part of what Russell told me in light of current events:

Sarah Jane Russell: I saw this flow of dads come in…they had their little kids in tow, and some had their daughters in tow, and I thought “you men are voting ‘No.’ I know this.” And I was the one who managed the whole voting room so I saw their expressions when they left. I was able to just engage with them, thanking them for coming in to vote. There was just a knowing. Moms came in—middle-aged moms came in. Women came in. Elder women came in, walking in their walkers. And I was like, oh my God, I'm seeing something here.

Marisa Kabas: How did you get the sense that they were coming in to vote “No”?

Sarah Jane Russell: There was an air of determination. I mean, yesterday in Kansas, it was 103 degrees. And the heat index was maybe 110. And you don't come out in that kind of weather if you're not determined to vote on something that means something to you. They could have easily stayed away and just let somebody else do the voting. One man came in his motorized wheelchair in this weather in the afternoon. I was like, dude! 

At the time it might’ve been easy to brush this off as a fluke, given the timing. But in that year’s midterms, it remained a focal point, which I wrote at the time was driven by young women voters. And we’re still seeing that same fire some 20 months later.

Just last month, an Alabama Democrat named Marilyn Lands flipped a seat in the state legislature by making her campaign almost exclusively about reproductive rights. Instead of shying away from her state supreme court’s recent ruling that frozen embryos are considered children—which threw the process of IVF in the state into a tailspin—or sidestepping Alabama’s near total abortion ban, Lands went all in. 

In a statement released after her victory, Lands wrote: “Alabama women and families sent a clear message that will be heard in Montgomery and across the nation. Our Legislature must repeal Alabama’s no-exceptions abortion ban, fully restore access to IVF, and protect the right to contraception.”

While it’s true that seven months stand between us and Election Day, this is no time for Democratic passivity. Having absolute confidence that an issue is a winner is a rare political gift, and Biden would be unwise to pass up one so nicely-wrapped. And best of all, accepting this gift will bring peace of mind to millions of Americans who’ve been denied their fundamental human rights. 

​​“Whatever internal thoughts and feelings he might have on it personally, he’s the president of the United States,”Kellie Copeland, the executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio, told the Times Wednesday. “People are suffering because they can’t access abortion. He should say that directly and plainly.”

Yes, he should—and during primetime. 

Join the conversation

or to participate.