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The Culture Wars Continue: Biden Takes on Abortion

Photograph Source: Carly Hagins – CC BY 2.0

Joe Biden is moving aggressively to redress many of the conditions left by Donald Trump’s administration, notably the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic recession and white nationalism. However, the most intractable challenge that he will face may be the resistance of the culture wars, particularly a woman’s right to an abortion.

The culture wars long anchored the Christian right and, while contained under the Obama administration, they were fiercely renewed and reinvigorated under Trump. Most troubling, conservative culture values were once championed by a minority of religious activists but, during Trump’s presidency, they became a cornerstone value of the larger white nationalist and rightwing movement.

During his first few days in office, Biden issued a slew of Executive Orders, many of then addressing cultural issues. Among the issues targeted were attacks on undocumented immigrants, ending the boarder wall and ending the Muslim travel bans.

Biden singled out one key aspects of the culture wars, notably racial equality. In one Order, he insisted that “all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.” It insisted:

Discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation manifests differently for different individuals, and it often overlaps with other forms of prohibited discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of race or disability.

Putting teeth into his Order, Biden issued a follow-up Order on January 25th repealing the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, a ban that Trump strongly supported. Biden’s Order stated, “Simply put, transgender servicemembers will no longer be subject to the possibility of discharge or separation on the basis of gender identity [and] transgender servicemembers can serve in their gender when transition is complete.” It added: “Transgender servicemembers should know that they are accepted throughout the U.S. military.”

Going further, Biden backed the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision, Bostock v. Clayton County (GA), that gay rights were included in a key provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title III). It formally extended federal nondiscrimination protections to members of the LGBTQ community, including discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Directly engaging critical issues of abortion, Biden revoked the global ban on federal funding of foreign organizations that perform abortions or provide abortion counseling or referrals known as the “Mexico City policy.” Originally promoted by the Reagan administration, it was reinstituted by Trump. In addition, Biden directed the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate whether to rescind Trump regulations under the Title X that barred federal funding for hundreds of women’s health clinics across the country.

However, that Trump administration and Senate Republicans have stacked the Supreme Court and innumerable federal judgeships with conservatives. They appointed three Supreme Court, 54 to the federal appeals court and174 to the district courts. Religious conservatives are pressuring the Court to reverse the landmark Roe v. Wage (1973) decision acknowledging a woman’s right to determine her pregnancy.

Many women live in counties without health and reproductive clinics as well as being blocked from securing a “legal” abortion. The New York Times reports that since 2013, at least 275 clinics providing abortion services have shut down. Making matters worse, almost four hundred state-level restrictions were proposed in the first half of 2019 alone.

The most recent – and scariest – legislative action to undercut Roe and formally end legal abortion in America – was recently taken the South Carolina Senate. After several years of trying, in a 30-13 vote, it adopted the “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act” that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Such a physical manifestation of early life is evident around six weeks after conception, but before many women know they are pregnant. If the bill passed the state House, which is expected, and the governor signs it, also as expected, it will be on its way to the Supreme Court.

Biden position on a woman’s right to an abortion is reminiscent of the tightrope walker. As reported in Forbes during the 2020 presidential campaign, in 2012, during a Vice President debate with Paul Ryan, Biden was questioned about his Catholic faith. He answered: “I accept church rule personally, but not in public life.” During a 2019 debate, he went further in clearly placing a woman’s decision to have an abortion as a “personal” decision not governed by “public” law, insisting: “Reproductive rights are a constitutional right. And, in fact, every woman should that right.”

The South Carolina fetal heartbeat bill (and likely adopted act) may reflect – like the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol — more the end of the 2020 presidential election and Trump’s short but significant influence on the political landscape. SC Republicans were energized by the election, gaining three seats over the Democrats and securing a 30-16 advantage.

One can only hope that the Biden election and, hopefully, good results over the next two years will defeat the Covid-19 pandemic and pull the nation out of the recession while reversing growing inequality, racism and global warming. Democratic — and especially, progressive Democratic – control of both Houses of Congress is the only way to redress the deepening tilt toward fascism. This tendency is implicitly embodied by Trump and explicitly promoted by elected officials (e.g., Sen. Josh Hawley) and a sizeable number of his follows (e.g., those who assaulted the Capitol on January 6th).

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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