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Biden Abortion
“The president has been clear: He and Vice President Harris are fighting to restore reproductive rights for all women,” Biden campaign spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg told NOTUS. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Activists Don’t Like How Biden Talks About Abortion. Democrats Don’t Care.

“He’s actually furthering abortion stigma,” one activist told NOTUS.

Two striking abortion rights ads put out by President Joe Biden’s campaign have something in common: both focus on Texas women who had to travel to terminate pregnancies they desperately wanted.

Abortion rights groups are glad to see Biden embracing the issue. But they’re frustrated by his campaign’s focus on only one kind of abortion — the “good” kind, as one put it. And it’s creating tension between these activists, who are worried about perpetuating stigma, and Democratic politicians and strategists who say it’s simply good tactics.

One Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing abortion rights groups, told NOTUS that abortion rights advocates criticizing the Biden campaign ads are “willfully ignoring the political imperative here.”

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s like a white, middle-class, heterosexual family unit we’re talking about,” the strategist said. “This is right out of central casting for the purposes of where your persuadable voters are.”

The strategist said the administration is trying to win over people who see a “moral gray area” on abortion. “If you’re trying to win a campaign,” the strategist said, you’ll pick someone “voters will be more likely to identify or sympathize with. That’s just the brutal reality of it.”

This year’s presidential election is the first to take place since the fall of Roe v. Wade, and abortion will be a key issue on the ballot box. Despite his long, complicated history on abortion access, Biden has consistently called for Roe to be codified into law. But so far, the narratives he has focused on stay away from elective abortions and put a spotlight on medically necessary ones.

The first ad — released after former President Donald Trump said abortion should be left to the states — follows Amanda Zurawski, a Texas woman who was denied an abortion even after her fetus was diagnosed with a fatal condition. The most recent ad — released on the second anniversary of the historic Dobbs opinion leak — follows Austin Dennard, a Texas woman and OB-GYN who “became pregnant with a baby I desperately wanted,” she says in the video, but she had to leave the state to get an abortion after receiving a fatal fetal diagnosis. The ad then directly blames Trump, who has said abortion should be left to the states, for the state bans that have been enacted after the fall of Roe.

It’s not just the ads: In public appearances, Biden brought attention to a 10-year-old rape victim who was forced to leave Ohio to get an abortion. He also has invited patients who had medically necessary abortions or miscarriage complications (like Zurawski, Kaitlyn Joshua and Kate Cox) to campaign events and the State of the Union, where he multiple times deviated from his prepared remarks to avoid saying the word “abortion.”

Abortion rights advocates are glad that Biden is sharing these stories — they just worry that they’re the only stories he’s sharing.

“He’s cherry-picking abortion stories that … it seems that he is personally affected by,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of We Testify, an organization that shares abortion stories. “But what about the rest of us? He’s actually furthering abortion stigma because he’s saying that there are specific reasons in which an abortion is justifiable, and the other reasons he’s not interested in elevating.”

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Activists also noted that both of the Biden campaign’s abortion ads follow the stories of white women, even though they make up about 30% of all abortions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent abortion data.

“If we want Black women in particular to believe that our concerns are being addressed, we need to see us,” said Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, a national abortion rights organization focused on Black women. “They need to center us.”

Abortion rights advocates say the Biden campaign needs to diversify what abortions it highlights.

“The ‘wanted pregnancy’ narrative really, intentionally or unintentionally, sets up a narrative that there’s good abortions and there’s bad abortions,” said Lizz Winstead, founder of Abortion Access Front, an organization focused on destigmatizing the procedure. “If you need to have an abortion because your wanted pregnancy went horribly wrong, you know, that’s acceptable. And for people who have had abortions because their life would go horribly wrong if they were forced to parent, those are really equally as valid stories.”

The Biden campaign said the president speaks about the importance of restoring abortion access broadly and seeks to highlight diverse voices — including abortion rights advocate Yesenia Gamez, who introduced Vice President Kamala Harris at an event — and stories in different campaign events and in private meetings. It is running an ad in Arizona that features “all diverse women,” the campaign said, although that spot does not follow any woman’s specific story. Another ad features a Latino man, Cesar Carreon, criticizing Trump and saying that Biden will “give my daughters their freedom back.”

“The president has been clear: He and Vice President Harris are fighting to restore reproductive rights for all women,” Biden campaign spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg told NOTUS. “A vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a vote to restore Roe, and a vote for Donald Trump is a vote to ban reproductive freedom across the country. These are the stakes in 2024.”

Polling could demonstrate why the Biden administration has adopted its framing on abortion. While most voters support keeping abortion legal, many say it should be only in certain cases, such as when there’s a medical need. A 2023 Gallup poll found that 51% of respondents say abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” compared to 34% who say it should be legal “under any circumstances.”

With the election still months away, political advisers say that Biden still has time to expand his abortion messaging.

“I think it’s important for the campaign to show the range of ways the loss of these rights affects women,” said Jen Palmieri, a longtime political adviser and former White House communications director during the Obama administration. “I don’t know why he started with them, but I believe [the campaign’s ads] are very effective in showing the dire ways the overturning of Roe affects women and families that voters might not have understood.”

Democrats in Congress were quick to defend the Biden campaign from criticism, arguing that it’s important to consider mainly the difference between Biden and Trump.

“We have President Biden, who is running to restore Roe, Vice President Harris, who is running to protect and expand autonomy for women, against President Trump, who is saying it’s totally fine with him if states monitor women’s pregnancies,” Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota told NOTUS. “I focus on that contrast and less on how on any given day the campaign is turning the dial and their communications.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who first shared her own abortion story in 2019, said the campaign is “trying to humanize the issue, they’re trying to stop the dehumanization that Republicans, MAGA extremists are trying to do in taking away abortion rights.”

“I do not think that it’s a cynical, political thing,” said former Rep. Marie Newman, who has shared her own experience getting an abortion when she was 19. “Truthfully, you know, I’ve had this conversation in the White House, I know that they care about all abortions. So, I think it’s a matter of this just was something that could get everybody’s attention, everybody could understand more readily.”

Sen. Laphonza Butler, the former head of EMILYs List, a political organization that supports abortion rights, suggested it’s not just the Biden campaign that’s responsible for sharing individual abortion stories. “Advocates across the country” also are “trying to show what is the totality of the experience of women across the country,” she said.

But Biden has a platform abortion rights advocates do not, and they hope to see him continue to use it.

“I’m glad that he’s figured out abortion is a winning issue. It’s sad that it took this long,” Bracey Sherman said. “Because I care about making sure people who need abortions get them, all I can say is, welcome to the party, get to fucking work.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.