‘We Would Love to See the President Use His Bully Pulpit’

Planned Parenthood will continue pushing the Biden administration on advancing sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice.

[GRAPHIC: Joe Biden on left, Alexis McGill Johnson on right with the words Biden 100 underneath]
"We continue to acknowledge there is more work to do and we will continue to fight for every bit of it," said Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood's president and CEO. Rewire News Group illustration

WhoAlexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund

Grade for Biden’s first 100 Days: B

“There’s work to do but he’s had a very, very strong start—a very promising start. But we continue to acknowledge there is more work to do and we will continue to fight for every bit of it.”

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

Rewire News Group: There are obviously a lot of different issues that folks are asking President Biden to focus on right now. Where do you see sexual and reproductive rights and health fitting into that universe?

Alexis McGill Johnson: I think the Biden-Harris administration has put a promising start on the table. I think they understand that it was women, and it was people of color, and the intersection of all our issues that put him in that seat, and I think that’s really critically important to understand. And so out of the gate, we were able to see the global “gag rule” repealed, we were able to see signals [of starting] to undo the harms that were imposed by the domestic gag rule and [the overhaul of the family planning program] Title X.

Some positive signals, for sure—but where have there been a couple of moments where you’ve felt, I’d like to see something better here?

AMJ: I think the president can be stronger in support for abortion. Some of his executive orders came out without using the word, and our other movement colleagues have challenged him on this. The president, with the bully pulpit, cannot further stigmatize abortion by not even deigning to say the word. I think pushing on that then extends to what’s really important right now, like creating access to [the abortion medication] mifepristone through telehealth. We’re still in a pandemic, people still need access to sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, and the Biden administration could be doing more to press on that for sure.

What about all the anti-abortion activity we’re seeing at the state level—how would you like to see President Biden react?

AMJ: We just released a report about these state restrictions, which are absolutely horrific. We have seen the most hostile state legislative environment in 2021 that we’ve ever seen. Medication abortion bans have tripled, proposed anti-abortion constitutional amendments have more than tripled, we’ve seen 12 abortion restrictions already enacted and they are incredibly extreme. Just a flavor of some of them to understand how extreme and diabolical some of these bans are: In South Carolina, they became the first state [in 2021] to pass a ban before most people know that they’re pregnant—six weeks. Tennessee passing [bills] that require notification of a male parent without even a paternity test!

Unfortunately, it’s hard for the White House to actually make inroads on what’s happening in the state environment. But we do know they could be doing more work to expand access. They could be focusing on repealing the racist Hyde Amendment. That would immediately start to create access in many of these states to expand the ability to use Medicaid for abortion. They could end the restrictions that are unscientific and unnecessary, medically, on medication abortion. Those are the sorts of things we would love to see the president use his bully pulpit [for]—to drive a different conversation and really create the space for state officials to stand up differently around this.

But it’s hard to see him moving forward when he won’t say the word abortion! How do we get him to say it?

AMJ: It’s such a great question, Galina! I don’t know. Look, I respect the president and the way he has talked about his faith in respect to his own personal views on abortion. But I don’t know any doctrine that says you can’t actually say the word. I think we need to have more faith leaders, folks like Senator Warnock, who are unapologetic in their defense of our ability to control our bodies. The bully pulpit is one of the most important tools of a president and we’re going to continue to put pressure on the president to say the word, to stop stigmatizing people who are seeking access to abortion.

There’s been a lot of national conversation about the idea of “unpacking the courts.” What do you hope to see from a Biden slate of court nominees?

AMJ: Again, continuing to have very strong support for sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion. The courts, quite frankly, are stacked against us. They have been our backstop for decades in stopping some of these harmful bans, and I think that what we are seeing now—the relationship between the courts and what’s happening in the state legislatures—is a very deliberate strategy to use the legislative sessions to create the bans that will be challenged and make their way up to the Supreme Court. I think the antis’ strategy is very powerful right now—we’re seeing the play very clearly.

Which means you’re going to have to push the administration on these issues! Do you have a sense of how far the president can be pushed?

AMJ: I think history tells us you have to not let your foot off the pedal, ever. He has two years—probably 18 months at this point—to push a very powerful intersectional agenda. I think he’s signaled quite clearly that he intends to be a New Deal kind of president, to really rebuild the faith in government and government policies to transform people’s lives. We worked with over 90 organizations to put together an agenda that we want to see the administration implement, and so we’re gonna continue fighting for every last item on that agenda—and they will know that we are out there fighting and organizing.

Thinking beyond the first 100 days, where do you hope to see the administration push policy on these issues?

AMJ: I think that what’s really important to understand is that the majority of Americans are with us on our issues. The majority of Americans support access to abortion, they do believe Roe should be the law of the land. There is literally no state, not even states where these crazy restrictions are popping up, that people don’t believe Roe should be the law of the land. And somehow we have convinced ourselves that the center of the Senate is where the center of the United States is.

I think that in two years, to be able to make the kind of bold policy changes—that are bold because they are pushing our bodies of Congress forward but are completely in line with where the majority of Americans are—is where I think this administration needs to be leaning.