Skip to content
Why Joe Biden Hates Saying the A-Word
Go to my account

Why Joe Biden Hates Saying the A-Word

Abortion is not a great issue for Democrats, so he is trying to warn that the leaked Alito opinion threatens other rights.

If I were a committed abortion rights supporter, I’d be pretty angry right now—at Joe Biden.

“As he prepared to board Air Force One,” reports Politico, “the president foreshadowed the message he will relay in the weeks and months ahead: If the high court’s draft opinion remains unchanged, it will threaten a larger collection of rights long taken for granted by the public, from contraception to marriage.”

Biden’s plan is to return “to a playbook he crafted 35 years ago” when he opposed Robert Bork’s nomination as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. To that end, the White House wants to make the case that this is about more than abortion.

“It would mean that every other decision relating to the notion of privacy is thrown into question,” Biden said. “If what is written is what remains, it goes far beyond the concern of whether or not there is the right to choose. It goes to other basic rights … who you marry, whether or not you decide to conceive a child or not, whether or not you can have an abortion, a range of other decisions.”

I don’t think this is a very sound reading of Alito’s opinion, which goes to great lengths to explain why abortion is different from issues like gay marriage or interracial marriage. Moreover, there are all sorts of legal and political reasons why this slippery slope argument isn’t very plausible. We can get to that. I also think the White House’s—and Biden’s—takeaways from the Bork episode are … problematic. Biden behaved dishonorably at the time. Shortly before Reagan selected Bork, Biden said, “Say the administration sends up Bork. I’d have to vote for him [because he was so qualified], and if the (liberal interest) groups tear me apart, that’s the medicine I’ll have to take.” And Biden’s own track record with abortion is, to put it generously, complicated.

Here’s what interests me: Why isn’t overturning Roe bad enough? It’s hard to think of an issue, save perhaps black voting rights, that the Democratic Party has invested more in over the last 50 years. I mean that literally and figuratively. How many millions—billions?—of dollars have been sluiced into candidates, ad campaigns, get-out-the-vote drives, marches, etc. in the name of “reproductive rights” and the candidates who support them? Unqualified support for Roe has been a litmus test on the left for decades. Culturally, abortion rights are a pillar of progressivism of almost unrivaled status. Margaret Sanger—who, ironically, was not a fan of abortion—is a kind of secular saint in the cause.

And yet Joe Biden immediately tried to paint this as an issue that was much bigger than abortion rights. In fact, CNN reported yesterday that for the first time in his presidency, Biden said the word “abortion,” at least publicly.

Again, I ask: Why aren’t abortion rights enough?

Think of it this way. Imagine there was a liberal majority on the Supreme Court and a decision revoking the constitutional right to own a gun leaked. Would a Republican president immediately try to change the subject to the potential threat to other stuff? (“This would throw the right to own a car into question!”)

I doubt it. The gun rights comparison is instructive in other ways. When gun rights proponents talk about gun rights they talk about, well, gun rights. Sure, they might use other phrases like “self-defense” and the “right to bear arms,” but they don’t do it to change the subject or cloud the issue in euphemism. Gun lobby groups use the word “gun,” “firearm,” or “rifle” in their names.

Abortion rights groups go another way. Even NARAL—which once stood for National Abortion Rights Action League—stopped being an acronym in 2003 when it changed its name to “NARAL Pro-Choice America.” Indeed, abortion is the most euphemized hot button topic in American life. “Women’s health” often means “access to abortion”—not funds for research into cervical or breast cancer or autoimmune diseases (which affect women wildly disproportionately). Abortion rights advocates are perfectly happy to leave people with the impression that if you oppose abortion, you’re against “women’s health” generally.

When positive euphemisms don’t work, negative ones often flood in. “Uterine contents,” “clump of cells,” etc. Dismissive scorn is enlisted to combat common moral intuition.

I think the reason for this is pretty obvious. Most people don’t like abortion. David French points to a fascinating Notre Dame study that confirms this, again, pretty obvious point. Most people who favor abortion rights, even in most circumstances, don’t like abortion. “None of the Americans we interviewed talked about abortion as a desirable good,” the study’s authors write. “Views range in terms of abortion’s preferred availability, justification, or need, but Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event, or something they want more of.” This is why Hollywood—despite decades of trying since Maude’s first sitcom abortion—usually fails at making abortion into a happy event or a funny one.

To be fair to abortion rights supporters, a great many of them explicitly (and certainly implicitly) admit this. I entirely believe all of the women who say that abortion is a “difficult decision.” And one hears that all the time in these debates. But the difficulty speaks to the basic reality of abortion: It’s not a happy thing. If it were, why would the decision be so difficult for so many?

I often think of it this way: A miscarriage and an abortion are different things, medically and otherwise, but the meaningful differences and similarities for our purposes have to do with intention. Miscarriages generally refer to babies that people—mothers and fathers—did not want to lose. Abortions refer to babies lost on purpose, for a host of different reasons to be sure. That’s an important difference, but no compassionate person would dismiss a miscarriage by saying, “Well, it was just a bunch of cells.” 

The point here is that most people understand that the objective entity, whether we call it a fetus or an unborn baby or “Junior,” doesn’t cease being what it is simply because we give it another dehumanized, medicalized, or otherwise euphemized label. The unborn aren’t at all like Schrodinger’s cat. A miscarriage is usually a sad event. An abortion may be a less sad one depending on the context, but telling people they are fools for not assigning some moral score to the act is simply unpersuasive, because it goes against our moral intuitions. Not all moral intuitions are good, of course (fear of strangers is wired very deeply into our lizard brains). But they are hard to overcome. And personally, I think “babies are good” is a positive moral intuition, all things being equal.

That’s why abortion is not a great issue for Democrats and why Biden probably avoids even saying the word. There are sincere and defensible arguments on all sides of the abortion debate (which is not to say that all of the arguments are sincere or defensible). But at the end of the day, Bill Clinton’s entirely political compromise position captured where most Americans come down: They want it “safe, legal, and rare.” The rare part is key, because within it is the space for all sorts of regulations most people favor.

And that’s what I find so interesting about Biden’s response. He may be locked in, as a political matter, to abortion rights maximalism, irrespective of his personal views. But the White House has decided that this is not the way it wants to frame the issue. Democrats want to say that if “they” come for abortion tomorrow, “they’ll” also come for privacy, gay marriage, etc., tomorrow. I suspect part of the reason is the David Shor argument that talking about stuff that isn’t popular is bad for Democrats. And because Biden can’t say “safe, legal, and rare,” he’s blocked off from a popular position on abortion. Another reason is that the Democrats already have nearly all pro-abortion single-issue voters in their column (overturning Roe might transform some people into new single-issue voters, though I am skeptical).

Again, if I spent my life fighting for abortion rights, this would piss me off. I’d be screaming at the TV, “Talk about the actual thing they’re taking away! Defend abortion for more than two seconds before changing the subject!”

The 50-year failure.

I’ve listened to a remarkable amount of commentary on the leaked decision, and one of the most remarkable things is how few people have any interest in engaging with the actual draft decision and its arguments. I mean, is Alito right that Roe was just made up constitutional law? You wouldn’t know what opponents make of the argument from listening to them on TV.

Defenders of Roe instead invest a lot of time into the policy of abortion rights, and they’re within their rights to do so. But to the extent that they engage in constitutional arguments, it’s to talk about “super precedents” and “settled law” and such. I find such arguments very weak, for reasons Alito gets into. But as a political matter, such arguments fail under their own weight. The upshot of all the “super precedent” and “settled law” talk is that abortion is too firmly established in the culture and law to be done away with. This is not a frivolous argument in theory. I remember Robert Bork saying that there’s a serious constitutional argument against paper money and a federal currency, but no one is going to revisit that for all the obvious reasons (sorry, crypto nerds). But, as even Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, abortion has divided this country for the half-century since the Roe decision. It has polarized the parties and distorted the entire judicial nomination process. Every year, state legislatures challenge Roe. The topic of abortion ruins dinner parties and sets people against each other.

And that’s (part of) the reason I think Biden’s effort to make this about a broader assault on privacy and marriage rights is so flawed on the merits. Whatever you think of the Obergefell decision that established a constitutional right to gay marriage, the simple fact is there’s no meaningful movement to overturn it. Eric Swalwell and others tried to argue that that this will be the first step to banning interracial marriage. Call me naïve, but I suspect that Clarence Thomas is not itching to rule his own marriage unconstitutional or to let the state of Virginia ban it. Ninety-four percent of Americans support interracial marriage and nearly 1 in 5 new marriages are interracial. Who, exactly, is going to push for an interracial marriage ban at the state level and then carry that fight to the Supreme Court? And in the very unlikely eventuality that it gets there, what five justices are going to uphold it? Again, not Thomas and presumably not Alito, given that he explicitly rejects the comparison (though some reasonable people reject his rejection). By the way, the landmark interracial marriage and gay rights cases hinged on equal protection arguments, not privacy arguments, which is what Ginsburg argued for as a better foundation for abortion rights.

Anyway, I’m not a lawyer and I’m sure lawyers can come up with arguments against Alito’s draft decision that threaten other established rights in theory. But given that the 50-year effort to overturn Roe has been so difficult despite the fact that its abortion rights absolutism is unpopular, I’m highly skeptical that a similar effort to overturn gay or interracial marriage (which most people either affirmatively support or have made peace with) will be able to repeat the pro-life movement’s successes.

Again, reasonable people can disagree and make reasonable arguments doing so. But the fact so many people want to make those arguments tells you a lot of about where the country stands on abortion.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.