Abortion fight puts Vice President Harris at the center of the 2024 election campaign

Posted at 9:37 AM, Jan 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-22 10:37:16-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris is taking center stage in the Democrats' renewed push for abortion rights during this year's election and she will mark the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling on Monday in Waukesha County.

It will be the first in a series of events hosted by Harris, and it comes one day before she joins President Joe Biden at another campaign event focused on abortion in Virginia. First lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff are also expected to be there.

In her speech in Wisconsin, Harris plans to hammer former President Donald Trump for saying he is "proud" to have helped overturn Roe v. Wade, which he enabled by nominating three conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court during his term.

"Proud that women across our nation are suffering?" Harris will say, according to excerpts released by her office. "Proud that women have been robbed of a fundamental freedom? That doctors could be thrown in prison for caring for patients? That young women today have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers?"

Back in Washington, Biden on Monday will convene a meeting of his reproductive health care access task force to discuss threats to emergency care and new steps for implementing executive orders on the subject.

The Democratic president said in a statement that "tens of millions of women now live in states with extreme and dangerous abortion bans," and "because of Republican elected officials, women's health and lives are at risk."

The administration plans to announce new steps to strengthen access to contraception and help file complaints under a law that's intended to ensure emergency health care access. The law is the subject of another legal battle that will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider whether it requires providing abortions in situations where a woman's health is at risk.

"President Biden and Vice President Harris stand with the vast majority of Americans who believe that the right to choose should be fundamental, and that healthcare decisions should be made by a woman with the help of her doctor — not politicians," White House gender policy adviser Jen Klein said in previewing the effort. "We've shown and will continue to show that commitment by decisively taking action to protect access to reproductive health care."

Although the loss of Roe v. Wade was a historic defeat for Democrats, the party successfully harnessed anger over the decision during the 2022 midterm elections, and they hope to do the same thing this year as Biden runs for a second term.

The White House has repeatedly turned to Harris, the first woman to serve as vice president, to make its case.

"One does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree that the government should not be telling her what to do with her body," she said in a recent appearance on ABC's "The View." "If she chooses she will talk with her priest, her pastor, her rabbi, her imam. But it should not be the government telling her what to do."

Harris also suggested that too many people took Roe v. Wade for granted before it was overturned.

"We kind of believed that it was always going to be there," she said. "And look what happened."

Harris' outspokenness on abortion contrasts with Biden's more reticent approach. Although he is a longtime supporter of abortion rights, he mentions less often and sometimes avoids using the word abortion even when he discusses the issue.

"I think the real star from a messaging standpoint is the vice president," said Mini Timmaraju, head of Reproductive Freedom for All, the activist organization formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League. "Look, Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris. Joe Biden has asked Kamala Harris to lead on this issue. This is going to set us up for a great contrast with the other side."

After Harris' appearance on "The View," she received a notable assessment from Kayleigh McEnany, a former Trump spokeswoman who co-hosts a show on Fox News.

"She brought up abortion again and again and again," McEnany said. No matter the topic, "she pivoted right back to abortion because she knows what is true, which is the GOP has lost every single abortion ballot initiative post-Roe."

McEnany described herself as pro-life, but said "what Kamala is doing, right or wrong, is very powerful among young women."

While Harris and Democrats have embraced abortion as a campaign issue, Republicans are shying away or calling for a truce.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, recently made a plea to "find consensus" on the divisive issue.

"As much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don't want them to judge me for being pro-life," she said during a primary debate in November.

Trump has taken credit for helping to overturn Roe v. Wade, but he has balked at laws like Florida's ban on abortions after six weeks, which was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican candidate.

"You have to win elections," Trump said during a recent Fox News town hall.

Harris' team is still working out the schedule for the rest of her events focused on abortion. Each stop is likely to feature a speech and a more intimate conversation with healthcare providers or women who have been affected by restrictions.

Wisconsin, Harris' first stop, is a key battleground state with an ongoing legal battle over abortion. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans argued that an 1849 law that was still on the books would effectively ban the procedure except in situations where a mother's life was at risk.

"These extremists want to roll back the clock to a time before women were treated as full citizens," Harris plans to say in her speech on Monday.

Clinics across the state stopped offering abortions until a court ruled the law did not apply to abortions. Republicans have appealed the decision, and the case will likely be decided by the state supreme court.

Abortion has reshaped Harris' tenure as vice president after earlier struggles when dealing with intractable issues like migration from Central America.

Jamal Simmons, a former communications director for Harris, said abortion "focused her attention and her office in a way that nothing had before."

"Focusing on abortion rights tapped into the vice president's legal background, her political values and her substantive knowledge in a way that I saw no other issue do while I was there," he said.

Vice presidents are rarely decisive figures in reelection campaigns. However, Harris has faced additional scrutiny because of Biden's age — he would be 82 at the start of a second term — and her status as the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to serve in her position.

The battle over abortion will also bolster her visibility.

"The president and the vice president appeal to different parts of the party," Simmons said. "They're stronger as a team."