Why, oh why, did the White House decide to disrespect abortion activists?

OPINION: These are the same activists who helped elect Biden in 2020 and that the Democratic Party will likely call on to drive voter engagement during the midterm elections.

Abortion rights activists march to the White House to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end federal abortion rights protections on Saturday, July 9, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Just when we were finally starting to see some action, some response from the White House to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, somehow, someway, the outgoing White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield, decided that was the moment to call out abortion activists. And I’m still not over it. 

In a statement following President Biden’s executive order announcement, Bedingfield wrote, “Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party. It’s to deliver help to women who are in danger and assemble a broad-based coalition to defend a woman’s right to choose now, just as he assembled such a coalition to win during the 2020 campaign.”

The only appropriate response to a statement like this was to tilt my head to the right and ask in a direct tone, “Excuse me, who exactly are ‘some activists’? Who is ‘consistently out of step’?”

Based on this statement, the official White House position is to be defensive and combative and to target the very abortion activists who are fighting for basic autonomy and access to basic health care. The same abortion activists who comprise the exact broad-based coalition that elected Biden in 2020 and that the Democratic Party will likely call on to drive voter engagement during the midterm elections. The same abortion activists that 61 percent of the country agree with that abortion should be legal and accessible. 

Make it make sense, somebody. 

What’s even more confounding is that the White House thought this statement was appropriate even after it took two weeks since the Supreme Court’s decision and more than two months since the draft decision leaked, for the administration to issue and sign the president’s executive order.

To be fair, the executive order is a start, a late start, but nonetheless a start. The provisions outlined include: preventing states from treating women and pregnant people seeking abortion care across state lines like enslaved people under the Fugitive Slave Act; protecting abortion providers and clinics from threats of violence; providing free legal defense to patients and providers who are being charged by states; and directing the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to medication abortions. Each of these provisions is critical, and there is still more that can be done. Apparently, the president is warming to the idea of declaring a national public health emergency, something abortion activists have been pushing for, and he and the White House should also consider funding clinics to perform abortions in cases when the health of the pregnant person is at risk, as Imani Gandy, Elie Mystal and others have been pointing out for weeks. 

Now, when we zoom out to see the broader political implications of calling out abortion activists, things really don’t add up. The president has been underwater when it comes to approval ratings for the past year, and the most recent polls show an even further decline in approval ratings among young people, Black and Latino people, and women—some of the most vocal advocates and consistent voters within the Democratic Party. According to a recent Siena poll, only 19 percent of voters aged 18-29 years old approve of the job President Biden is doing, along with only 62 percent of Black voters, 32 percent of Latino voters, and 35 percent of women voters.

With November just the blink of an eye away, disrespecting activists is not the move when they’re the very people the Democrats need. As Ashley Allison, the former National Coalitions Director for the Biden 2020 presidential campaign, recently stated on CNN, “These people going into the street saying that we need bodily autonomy, that is the excitement that Democrats need right now ahead of the midterms. And to demonize them and say they’re not mainstream, well, abortion is a very popular issue in the country…I think it was an unforced error. And I hope they address it. I’m not sure they will.”

The White House better attempt to clean this up because activists are still going to keep pushing for more, as they should. We saw another example of that at the gun bill signing event this week when Manuel Oliver, the father of a Parkland victim, stood up and demanded that President Biden do more to save children’s lives. Being tight and defensive is not the move in this moment of compounding crises, and if nothing else, Bedingfield’s statement is a parting gift of sorts that confirms a third rail the White House should not touch again.


Juanita Tolliver is a veteran political strategist and MSNBC Political Analyst who previously served as National Political Director at Supermajority and Director of Campaigns at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @juanitatolliver.

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