Joe Biden is under fire from his Democratic presidential rivals and women's rights advocates for his defense of a decades-old prohibition on federal money paying for abortions.
Most Democratic White House hopefuls reflect their party's latest platform calling for the outright repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which traces back to a compromise made when Biden was a young Delaware senator in the years after the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion nationwide.
But a Biden campaign spokesman said Wednesday that the former vice president supports the measure, though he "would be open to repealing it" if abortion access is further threatened by restrictive state laws, like those recently passed in Georgia and Alabama.
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The hedging prompted intraparty outcry, with top Democrats reaffirming their commitment to abortion rights and scrapping the Hyde Amendment. They generally avoided mentioning Biden by name, but the pushback marked the first significant instance in which virtually the entire crowded 2020 field united to critique Biden, who has emerged as an early Democratic front-runner .
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has campaigned as an unapologetic feminist, tweeted "reproductive rights are human rights, period. They should be nonnegotiable for all Democrats." On Capitol Hill, California Sen. Kamala Harris told The Associated Press she was "absolutely opposed to the idea that a woman is not going to have an ability to exercise her choice based on how much money she's got."
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, during an MSNBC town hall in Indiana, said Biden was wrong to support the abortion funding restriction. "Women of means will still have access to abortions," Warren said. "Who won't will be poor women, will be working women, will be women who can't afford to take off three days from work."
Other presidential candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, also voiced support for ending the Hyde Amendment.
Biden's abortion views came under scrutiny recently after video emerged of a conversation between him and a South Carolina activist that appeared to suggest he backed the Hyde Amendment's repeal. His campaign said Biden thought the activist was asking about the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibits U.S. foreign aid to non-American organizations that provide abortion services.
The campaign said Biden supports ending the Mexico City rule but backs the Hyde Amendment for now. That would change, it said, "if avenues for women to access their protected rights under Roe v. Wade are closed."
Biden, a Roman Catholic, has long been a supporter of the once-bipartisan Hyde Amendment, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993. It bars the use of federal funds for abortion other than in cases of incest, rape or to save the life of the mother.
That position aligns the former vice president with the man he's trying to unseat next year, President Donald Trump. Campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Wednesday that "President Trump opposes taxpayer funding of abortions and supports the Hyde Amendment."
Biden has said in the past he agrees with his church's opposition to abortion personally but doesn't think the government should impose his views on others. After the Supreme Court decided the Roe v. Wade case, Biden originally worried the decision "went too far," though he later became a staunch defender of it.
"I've stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years," he wrote in his 2007 book "Promises to Keep." ''I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I'd like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion, but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice."
As a party, Democrats didn't expressly state opposition to the Hyde Amendment until 2016. The Democratic platform that year also introduced a specific mention of Planned Parenthood, as it was adopted amid a rash of Republican-run state legislatures trying to strip Medicaid financing for the women's health giant whose services include abortion and abortion referrals.
Abortion rights supporters also condemned the Hyde Amendment on Wednesday.
"As abortion access is being restricted and pushed out of reach in states around the country, it is unacceptable for a candidate to support policies that further restrict abortion," Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Biden's position "further endangers women and families already facing enormous hurdles and creates two classes of rights for people in this country, which is inherently undemocratic."
Biden ally and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in an interview, "I respect Joe. I just disagree." She said it wouldn't affect her support, but she planned to raise the issue with him: "Oh, yeah. We'll talk about it. No question."
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono went further, saying she was "very disappointed" in Biden's position and urged Democratic presidential candidates to "come together" in full support of abortion rights.
"This is why there are going to be a lot of women and others who are going to be asking Biden, 'Where exactly are you on the issue of a woman's right to choose?'" Hirono said.