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Joe Biden’s Likely Presidential Bid Raises Women’s Rights Questions

Joe Biden

According to reports that former Vice President Joe Biden is making no attempt whatsoever to deny, the internet’s favorite uncle is moving closer and closer to a formal 2020 presidential bid. Of course, his vigilance in criticizing the dealings of the Trump administration, increasingly frequent appearances on late night shows, vocal social media presence and, most recently, an appearance at Glamour’s Women of the Year summit in New York on Monday hardly leave room for doubt, but Politico’s report last week made it start to feel real.

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And yet, speaking of the women’s summit, beneath the former veep’s cuddly and progressive exterior, there’s room for criticism in terms of what, exactly, his presidential bid would mean for women’s rights. After all, I’d like to remind you that in a Washingtonian profile—albeit one published decades ago—Biden not-so-famously uttered the words, “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.” The quote may have quietly faded to irrelevance over the years, but it really shouldn’t have, and in either case, it seems more relevant now than ever to the Democratic Party—but more on that later.

Biden’s appearance at the aforementioned Glamour summit this week turned a little contentious when an audience member asked Biden about the Senate hearing he chaired for Clarence Thomas’ 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court, and specifically, about accusations that women whom Thomas allegedly sexually harassed weren’t adequately protected or given opportunity to speak. At the time of the confirmation hearing, Biden notably told The New York Times he believed it was important to “start off with a presumption of giving the person accused the benefit of the doubt.”

Biden smooth-talked his way through the question, asserting that he’d always believed Anita Hill, Thomas’ most famous accuser, and praising her bravery for coming forward. But the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying, as Biden seemed unwilling to take responsibility for his shortcomings as an ally.

Nonetheless, I admit that questioning Biden’s stance on women’s rights might seem more than a little out of left field, considering his record that includes writing the Violence Against Women Act while in the Senate, positioning himself at the helm of White House initiatives to fight campus sexual assault, and, speaking of campus sexual assault, his myriad inspiring—and, I don’t doubt, heartfelt—speeches about the issue. Just this week, he made headlines for teaming up with Lady Gaga to open trauma centers for survivors across the country.

When it comes to his intentions and genuine passion for fighting sexual assault, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, although I support women who continue to question him about how he handled—or may have mishandled—Thomas’ confirmation hearing until he offers a good answer. Almost every opportunity he’s had to bring the issue of campus sexual assault to the spotlight, to give survivors and advocates platforms, he’s taken.

Nonetheless, his history re: Anita Hill is concerning, and yet, when it comes to how a Biden 2020 run could hurt women, Anita Hill is just the tip of the iceberg. To be clear, it’s Biden’s stance on abortion—at a time when many members of Democratic Party leadership have made it abundantly clear this isn’t something they care enough about to push Democratic candidates on—that I find particularly worrying.

Since last he spoke about the issue, Biden, while identifying as pro-choice, supports the Hyde amendment: a law that bans federal funding for abortion with few exceptions (i.e. rape, incest, endangerment of the mother). Support for the law is tantamount to saying that human rights, such as that most fundamental right to bodily autonomy, should only be accorded to the women privileged enough to be able to afford them. We’d be kidding ourselves if we ignored how women quite literally die or severely injure themselves as a result of lack of access to abortion due to the ever increasing legal, geographic or financial barriers—the United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world.

This isn’t about respecting conscientious abortion opponents—who, as a gentle reminder, are A-OK with their tax dollars funding wars where thousands of born, living humans are killed. And yet, Biden seemed to think that’s what it was about when he wrote in 1994 that “those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them.”

According to Mother Jones, Biden also has a record of supporting a 1982 amendment that would have overturned Roe, and siding with abortion opponents throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to support bans on late-term abortions, which are rare and often needed by women in dire health situations. And I know that, for whatever reason, there’s a sort of (very sexist) unspoken rule that we shouldn’t talk about her anymore, but I think it’s worth noting Hillary Clinton voted against the same late-term abortion bans that Biden voted for.

It’s deeply unfortunate that Biden hasn’t been brought to task about his record of attacking Roe, or supporting policies of reproductive coercion like Hyde, which allows the state to all but force poor women to give birth, and late-term bans that fundamentally misrepresent the grave situations of the women seeking them. In particular, Biden’s opposition to public funding for abortion feels idiosyncratic, to say the least, after both Clinton and Sanders, the two Democratic candidates of 2016, both came out opposing the Hyde amendment last year. And my fear is that, now that Democratic stars—ranging from DNC chair Tom Perez to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to purported progressive icon Bernie Sanders to Rep. Ben Ray Lujá, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman to California Gov. Jerry Brown—have all come out supporting the concept of anti-choice Democrats running for office, Biden will never really be questioned on or pressured to change his stance.

We’re living in an age in which—after the first female presidential nominee of a major political party lost because our country is more broken, racist, and sexist than many of us could have imagined—the Democratic Party is increasingly trying to distance itself from that scorned term, “identity politics,” and the appearance of intolerance of conservative views. They still don’t understand November 8, 2016, and women and marginalized groups will suffer the consequences. They’re forgetting that the views they’re making an effort to include are viewpoints that oppress, marginalize, and—in cases of abortion—jeopardize the lives of real, living people. For the sake of “optics” and appeasing those who are more interested in preserving “ideological diversity” than acknowledging that our lawmakers continue to fail marginalized people every day, key Democratic influencers aren’t going to push Biden to adapt his stance on a key women’s right, and frankly, that should be terrify women.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: “compromise” on abortion isn’t going to win over Republican voters, but you can bet that it will lose principled women’s rights supporters. Last Tuesday showed Democrats what their strategy should be: supporting diverse, grassroots campaigns across every office of government.

Specific to Biden, perhaps against my better judgment, I like the man—it’s difficult not to—and I believe there could be time for him to correct his stances and take responsibility for where his politics have hurt women in the past. But he is deeply, deeply flawed—especially, ironically, with regard to the record on women’s rights that he’s so proud of. And if Democratic Party leadership isn’t going to call him out on this, then it’s up to us.

(image: Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com)

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Author

Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct <em>Geekosystem</em> (RIP), and then at <em>The Mary Sue</em> starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at <em>Smash Bros.</em>

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