TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Vice President Kamala Harris railed against efforts in Washington and in Republican-led states to restrict abortion on what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, invoking fundamental American values such as freedom to make the case for protecting abortion access despite the Supreme Court's decision to eliminate constitutional protections for it.
Leading the administration's response on commemorating Roe on Sunday, Harris methodically detailed fights throughout history for certain liberties, such as civil rights and the right to vote for women, and tied that to access to abortion, which Harris called the “fundamental, constitutional, right of a woman to make decisions about her own body.”
“Can we truly be free if families cannot make intimate decisions about the course of their own lives?” Harris said in a fiery speech before a boisterous crowd of 1,500 people in Tallahassee, Florida. “And can we truly be free if so-called leaders claim to be quote, I quote, on the vanguard of freedom while they dare to restrict the rights of the American people and attack the very foundations of freedom?”
Women’s marches demanding the protection of abortion rights were set to draw thousands of people across the country on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of the now-overturned Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a federal right to an abortion.
Harris outlined the consequences of abortion restrictions: The 10-year-old girl in Ohio who became pregnant after a rape but had to travel out of state for an abortion. A 35-year-old Texas woman was denied treatment three times for what turned out to be a miscarriage, and developed sepsis, nearly killing her. A 14-year-old in Arizona initially could not obtain medication to control her chronic arthritis, because that medication also can cause pregnancy loss.
“The right of every woman, in every state in this country to make decisions about her own body is on the line,” Harris said. “I've said it before and I'll say it again: How dare they. How dare they?”
The decision for Harris to speak in Tallahassee, the state capital, reflects how the battle lines have shifted since last summer. Now that there's no more national right to abortion, battles over the issue will play out in individual statehouses rather than in the halls of Congress or before the Supreme Court. White House officials this past week convened top lawmakers from eight states to discuss pending legislation.
In addition, after performing better than expected in November's elections, Democrats see abortion as a key issue for their party in 2024, when control of the White House and both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs at the same time. DeSantis may seek the Republican presidential nomination, the first step to challenging President Joe Biden, who has been preparing for a reelection campaign.
Ahead of her speech, Harris told abortion rights advocates on a conference call Sunday that they should keep up their energy as they push back against restrictions in Republican-led states and work on behalf of candidates in local races who support abortion access.
“We are fighting for something. History is going to show we are on the right side of this issue,” Harris said. “So let us not be deterred, let us not be overwhelmed. This is not a time to throw up our hands. This is a time to roll up our sleeves.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Florida is critical because its abortion rules are less restrictive than its neighbors, making it a relatively safe harbor for women in the region who are trying to end their pregnancies. But more restrictions could be considered by the Republican-controlled state government.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden, in a statement Sunday, said “women should be able to make these deeply personal decisions free from political interference. Yet, Republicans in Congress and across the country continue to push for a national abortion ban, to criminalize doctors and nurses, and to make contraception harder to access. It’s dangerous, extreme, and out of touch.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Biden, said the White House strategy on abortion had three goals.
“You can create an atmosphere and put pressure on these states to make it more difficult to pass draconian restrictions," she said. In addition, Lake said, “you can set up the contrast for 2024" and "you can use this as a major motivator for people to turn out to vote.”
Democrats have concluded that the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade reshaped the political landscape for last year's elections, rejuvenating the party's chances when analysts had expected a Republican wipeout.
Democrats still lost control of the House and expanded their Senate majority by only one vote, meaning legislation that would create a nationwide right to abortion remains out of reach.
There are concerns that Biden and his administration have exhausted their options for executive actions.
The Food and Drug Administration announced this month that abortion pills would become more widely available at pharmacies and through the mail. The pills can also be obtained through a virtual appointment, rather than by visiting a doctor's office.
A legal battle is now playing out in federal court in Texas, where abortion opponents have sued to undo the decades-old approval of the drugs.
“The administration is really looking at existing federal law, and trying to leverage it," said Lawrence Gostin, who runs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law.
Not all of the administration's ideas have panned out. Biden announced last year that states could apply for waivers to use Medicaid dollars to pay for women to travel to get abortions. No waivers have been sought.
Across states, the fight to protect abortion access is playing out in courtrooms, with active litigation against abortion restrictions in 14 states, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The nonprofit health organization found that advocates have generally taken one of three approaches to mount legal challenges against abortion laws by claiming the laws violate state constitutional protections, infringe on some states’ guaranteed rights to make health care choices, or block religious freedoms.
It's unclear which legal arguments may be most successful, with the state’s highest courts ultimately deciding how accessible abortion will be. Meanwhile, abortion opponents are searching for ways to use the courts to further restrict abortion.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the group We Testify, which advocates for women who have had abortions, said she is disappointed that Biden hasn't done more.
“The fact that he is missing in action during this public health emergency is really embarrassing,” she said.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., had joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., last year to call on Biden to formally declare a public health emergency.
Biden never did, but Smith said she is satisfied with the steps he has taken.
“I’d be hard-pressed to point to something that they haven’t done that they might have done with a public health emergency,” she said.