‘It Feels Like It’s ‘Build Back Better’ for Everything Except Abortion’

President Joe Biden ran on a pro-choice platform. Yet neither he nor his administration has said the word abortion.

[GRAPHIC: Joe Biden and Renee Bracey Sherman in a red and white background]
"He’s done most of the things that the other presidents have done, but actually not all of them, which is why he’s a C-minus," Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, said. Rewire News Group illustration

WhoRenee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have had abortions

Grade for Biden’s first 100 days: C-

“He’s done most of the things that the other presidents have done, but actually not all of them, which is why he’s a C-minus.”

This interview with Rewire News Group’s president and editor-in-chief, Galina Espinoza, has been edited for space and clarity; to hear the conversation in its entirety, please visit here. For more on the Biden 100 series, visit here.

Rewire News Group: Thinking back to Inauguration Day, what were some of the feelings you had seeing the new administration sworn in?

Renee Bracey Sherman: I have always been operating as if Trump would do eight years. So seeing them being inaugurated, it was this moment of: Wow, OK, we did it—we got rid of him. And then of course, I had the excitement, and that was kind of smashed a little bit during the first press conference. It brought me a bit back down to reality of how much work we still have to do with this administration. Even though they consider themselves to be pro-choice, I think they could actually do a bit more to prove that to all of us.

What was it about that first press conference that crushed you?

RBS: Everything! Literally, every single second of it. I thought it was really beautiful that [press secretary] Jen Psaki stood up there and said, “Trans rights are human rights”—they said it so very clearly. They did the same thing about supporting the workers trying to unionize Amazon: “We support unions, we believe it’s important to a thriving middle class”—they explain all of those things. And yet, when they’re asked about abortion, they say, “Well, the president goes to church and he’s a very devout Catholic. Next question.” And they don’t even bother to say, “We believe that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land”—they usually say that one! So it was this disappointment and frustration.

And then the continuation of refusing to say the word “abortion”—refusing to use the word in the Roe v. Wade statement on the anniversary [of the decision]. All of these things are these signals to all of us who have abortions that, actually, they don’t necessarily want to go out and make sure that we have access to the health care that we need, that they’re not willing to go out on a limb and defend us, and that we’re a last priority when it comes to this administration.

There are so many simple things that his administration could do and has not yet done. Starting with saying the word abortion! How can we trust that you have our best interest at heart if you’re not even willing to stand with us and talk about it openly? I mean, how hard it is to stand up at that podium and say, “You know, President Biden ran on a pro-choice platform. Everyone in this country loves someone who’s had an abortion, and this administration believes that everyone should have access to their constitutional rights and access to health care, and abortion is part of health care.” Look at that!

What do you think it will take to get him to say it?

RBS: I think it’s all up to public pressure. Whenever we want to see a behavior change among our loved ones or our friends we actually have to have some hard accountability with them and say, “Hey, because I love you and because I care about you and you’re hurting this other person, I actually want to see you to do better.” And he has shifted in the way he feels about abortion; he was quite anti-abortion early in his career!

He’s been on a very long journey. I can appreciate that. What’s really challenging is that he has been in office as long as abortion has been legal, and because so many of us are waiting for him to come on that journey to the side that means that we have our basic human rights, that means that so many people along the way haven’t had access to what they need while they’re patiently waiting for him to learn.

There’s an interview that [the late rapper] Tupac [Shakur] did a long, long time ago where he said, “We’re tired of asking, because we’ve been knocking at the door saying we’re out here, we hungry and y’all have everything you need. And at what point, are we supposed to continue sitting here knocking?” And at this point, all of us who’ve had abortions? We’re tired of knocking! And so now, we’re banging on the door and we are saying, “Look, you have had over 40 years to figure this out, and to read all of the books, right? Get it together!” No matter how you personally feel about abortion, President Biden, that’s not the point. The point is, you are a duly elected public official and you are supposed to be holding up all of the laws, making sure people have access to the things that they need.

Are there any encouraging signs you’ve seen so far?

RBS: He did what he was supposed to do—that every pro-choice president has done—which is, repeal the global “gag rule” and [propose] expanding [the family planning program] Title X. But also, the reality is, most presidents do that on day one—and he did not. So again, I’m having a hard time. He’s doing the bare minimum. He had the campaign slogan, “Build Back Better,” and it feels like it’s build back better for everybody else except abortion, where we get, “Build Back the Minimum.”

Right now, there’s so much activity in the state legislatures aimed at restricting abortion access. Do you think there’s value in having the administration speaking out about that?

RBS: Honestly, I’d love for them to say anything to acknowledge what’s happening in the states. Obviously, they don’t shy away from talking about things happening in state legislation. They’ve talked about a lot of these bills that are trying to ban trans athletes that are atrocious and wrong and also a reproductive justice issue and that’s huge. We know the right to vote is being decimated in so many states and that is connected to being able to have reproductive freedoms, so that’s wonderful [to hear the administration speak out on that] as well. It would be wonderful if they would even remotely mention that hundreds of bills are being proposed to outright ban abortion.

And of course we’re seeing that the same folks who are fighting so hard to ban abortion are often the same ones who are also trying to restrict voting rights, and trans rights.

RBS: People kind of think that because anti-abortion folks are like, “We want to save Black babies,” therefore they’re not white supremacists. Honestly, they’re just white supremacists whose side job is protesting abortion. And I think that every single time people separate these things they are proving that they’re not understanding how much white supremacy is about controlling people’s bodies, controlling how people live their lives.

What I would love to see is, what is the president doing when he’s talking to his department of justice and they’re looking at white supremacist extremism? Are they asking them to only look at the Proud Boys and how they’re gathering in parks, or are they looking at the connections they have to folks who have been shooting at clinics?