Washington (AFP) – Presidential Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden came under spirited attack from White House rivals Wednesday after his campaign confirmed that he supports a ban on federal funding for abortions that many in his party want overturned.
The pile-on within hours by at least 11 of the candidates in the 2020 race for the party’s nomination was the clearest collective push-back against the popular former vice president since he entered the race in April.
It highlighted the fault lines in a sensitive debate of the hot-button abortion issue in the run up to next year’s elections between a Democratic nominee and President Donald Trump.
And it comes amid an unprecedented assault on women’s reproductive rights by Republican-controlled legislatures in several states including Louisiana and Georgia, both of which recently enacted laws banning nearly all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
The issue surged to the fore Wednesday when Biden’s campaign confirmed to US media that he supported the Hyde Amendment, an existing law that prohibits expenditure of federal funds on abortions except in rare cases when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, or when the pregnancy results from rape or incest.
“We must rescind the Hyde Amendment and resist attempts by states to erect roadblocks to abortion,” tweeted Senator Bernie Sanders, who is second in the Democratic polls behind Biden.
“The Hyde Amendment should not be American law,” added Senator Elizabeth Warren at a campaign stop in Indiana, saying she would “lead the fight” to repeal it.
Most candidates refrained from mentioning Biden by name, but women’s rights groups challenged the veteran Democrat head on.
“There’s NO political or ideological excuse for @JoeBiden’s support for the Hyde Amendment, which translates into discrimination against poor women and women of color plain and simple,” pro-choice non-governmental National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said in a statement.
– Complicated position –
The 1976 amendment was named after its chief sponsor, Republican congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois.
Abortion rights advocates argue it and other anti-abortion efforts like the closure of local reproductive health clinics disproportionately affect the poor, who have fewer resources to spend on health services or to travel to distant facilities for treatment.
All of the 23 Democrats in the race are on record supporting Roe v Wade, the 1970s Supreme Court decision that enshrined legal rights to abortion across the nation.
But for Biden, who is Catholic, it has been complicated. During his years in the US Senate he expressed his personal opposition to abortion and repeatedly voted against federal funding of the procedure.
In 1994 during negotiations over health care, he wrote a constituent in Delaware that “those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them,” according to Biden’s letter reproduced by NBC News.
Several 2020 Democratic contenders have taken the opposite approach.
Six senators running for president, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, co-sponsored a Senate measure that would effectively end Hyde by ensuring coverage for abortions in public insurance programs like Medicaid.
Biden has faced criticism on multiple fronts this week.
On Tuesday he unveiled his $1.7 trillion climate action plan, which seeks net-zero emissions by 2050 — but within hours accusations emerged that he included unattributed passages lifted from other organizations’ previously published documents.
Biden’s campaign called the incident an error that was corrected “as soon as we were made aware of it.”
Biden, who holds a commanding lead in the crowded 2020 Democratic field, is no stranger to plagiarism accusations.
The latest incident recalled his unattributed use of passages from a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock that helped drive Biden from the 1988 Democratic nomination race.
Trump quickly pounced, tweeting Wednesday that the “plagiarism charge against Sleepy Joe Biden on his ridiculous Climate Change Plan is a big problem.”