It’s a side of Joe Biden the public rarely sees. Friends who’ve endured lengthy car rides with him or joined in his impromptu huddles after mass know that chewing over the ins and outs of religious thought is a time-honored pastime for the country’s second Catholic President.
That interest spilled into public view the morning after news broke about a draft Supreme Court ruling that would eliminate nationwide abortion protections under Roe v. Wade. Biden was preparing to leave Washington to visit an Alabama factory making missiles for Ukraine when he name-checked the 13th century Italian friar and philosopher Thomas Aquinas while talking to reporters under the wing of Air Force One.
The president pointed out that even a Catholic saint like Aquinas had once argued that life began when a pregnant woman could feel the child move, an 800-year-old view that runs against current Catholic teachings that life begins when a sperm meets an egg.
“Roe says what all basic mainstream religions have historically concluded,” Biden told reporters, “that the existence of a human life and being is a question.” The idea that the Supreme Court would limit the ability of people to make that judgment when religious thinkers have been disagreeing about it for a millennium, “goes way overboard,” he said.
In his response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, Biden is no longer in the position of being pulled to reluctantly defend abortion rights. He’s embraced a new role as the head of the party leading the effort. Soon after the leak, Biden came out forcefully in defense of a woman’s right to choose as “fundamental” and said he would work to sign into law a bill that codifies the access to abortion protected under the 1973 decision. He hasn’t lost his old habits of mind though. While speaking to reporters as Air Force One engines whirred, he used the phrase “abort a child” to describe ending a pregnancy, a phrase often used by those opposed to abortion.
This hasn’t always been a comfortable position for Joe Biden, a life-long Catholic who grew up with church doctrine that teaches abortion is a sin. In the 1980s, Biden voted for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade. As he campaigned for President in 2019, Biden dropped his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, the 1970s law blocking federal funds from subsidizing abortions.
Recently, pro-choice advocates have publicly called on Biden to visit an abortion clinic to bring more attention to the issue, but the White House hasn’t confirmed any such visit is being planned.
“He’s being pushed to adopt and defend and legislate on the position of the party, which historically wasn’t his in the mid-70s. He has changed his mind.” says Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and author of Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.
Should the Supreme Court follow through with repealing Roe v. Wade, Biden will find himself in unfamiliar territory as a Democrat and a Catholic. His position for most of his political life was that he was personally against abortion, but didn’t think lawmakers should legislate for the whole country on the basis of church doctrine. But Biden now says he will be pushing states and lawmakers to protect abortion rights wherever possible.
That is sure to exacerbate already simmering tensions within the Catholic Church over how to respond to having a President with such views being a member of their flock. Biden and Pope Francis have corresponded and developed a comfortable rapport. The Pope has been especially supportive of Biden’s welcoming views on immigration and his emphasis on the role of government in relieving poverty. But if Biden pushes more forcefully into protecting access to abortion, that could add a new tension to the relationship. Already, a few American bishops have publicly called for Biden to be denied the Catholic rite of communion for his position on abortion.
“For those who have defended him—a few bishops in this country, a few cardinals in Rome, and Pope Francis—it will become more difficult to do it in public,” says Faggioli.
Inside the White House, plans are underway to best position Biden as abortion moves to a frontline issue in midterm races around the country. Internal Democratic polling shows the issue could swing women voters away from Republicans by a few percentage points in some key House and governors races, enough to change outcomes. But strategists have advised Biden to steer his statements away from religion, and instead emphasize that Democrats are fighting to keep women from being stripped of a right that they have had for five decades. “It’s not a question of religious beliefs, but a question of rights.” says a former advisor in the Biden White House. “Do you believe someone has the right to choose?”