During a press briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban — all without actually saying the word “abortion” once. Instead, she used the messaging consistently employed by President Joe Biden and his administration, cycling through phrases that clearly allude to abortion when used in context, but avoiding the actual word.
“Over the last four years, critical rights like the right to healthcare and the right to choose have been under attack,” Psaki told reporters at the briefing. “The President and Vice President are devoted to ensuring that every American has access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, regardless of their income, zip code, race, health insurance status, [or] immigration status. As such, the president is committed to codifying Roe regardless...of the outcome of this case.”
Rather than use the word “abortion,” both Biden and Psaki have continued to opt for euphemistic terms like “reproductive health” or “access to choice.” To be clear, an abortion does technically fall under the larger umbrella of reproductive health; however, avoiding the word enables the stigma.
This isn't a one-off instance for the Biden team, either. If you’re not listening for it, the omission would almost go unnoticed. But upon further examination, the exclusion becomes glaringly obvious because the administration pretty much does it every time. “He has not said it at all since he took office, but definitely well before that,” Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of the abortion storytelling organization We Testify, told Refinery29. “I started noticing it pretty much on day one with the first press conference that the White House had on Inauguration Day.”
During the first White House press conference, Owen Jensen, a reporter for the Catholic television network EWTN, asked Psaki about the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding from covering abortion services. Psaki side-stepped the question, instead choosing to focus on Biden’s religious affiliation. “I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly. He started his day attending church with his family this morning, but I don’t have anything more for you on that,” she said.
This set a precedent that has continued to permeate Psaki's conferences. But Bracey Sherman also noted that, even aside from omitting the word abortion, there are other things that make Biden’s stance on the right to choose stand out. On the campaign trail, Biden spent less time answering abortion-related questions than he did questions on other campaign talking points, she noticed. “On every single presumably progressive issue, he was very clear to set a tone and values,” said Bracey Sherman. “How come he can’t do that for abortion? He talks about wanting to go big on abortion, economic justice, and supporting women. Imagine this. If they were talking about the importance of the right to vote, but they never said the word vote, that would be weird, right?”
So, why evade saying "abortion" if the administration allegedly supports it? Biden’s public position on reproductive rights has shifted throughout the course of his long political career. As a practicing Catholic, he initially criticized Roe v. Wade. “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion,” he said in a 1974 interview with Washingtonian. “I think it went too far. I don’t think a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” On multiple occasions at least up through 1983, Biden voted against proposals for Medicaid-funded abortions, to remove exemptions for incest and rape, and to prevent federal employees from obtaining abortion services through their health insurance, reports Axios.
In 2006, Biden told Texas Monthly, “I’m a little bit of an odd man out in my party. I’ve made the groups — the women’s groups and others — very angry because I won’t support public funding and I won’t support partial-birth abortion.” It should be noted: "partial-birth abortion" and "late-term abortion" are not actual medical terms; they were made up by the anti-choice community to vilify those who terminate their pregnancies at a later stage, a rare procedure often done due to medical complications. It is difficult to find instances in which he uses the word abortion after that.
And in 2007, during an appearance with Meet the Press, Biden maintained that he supported a ban on abortions that are done later in pregnancy. “I accept church rule personally, but not in public life,” he said during a vice-presidential debate in October 2012. But in a 2019 debate, Biden said, “Reproductive rights are a constitutional right. And, in fact, every woman should have that right.”
Now, in 2020, despite promoting support for "reproductive rights," Biden's team continues to play in the middle of the road. And this seems entirely intentional: Not saying the word "abortion" effectively avoids sounding off conservative or religious alarms. Or worse, a look into Biden's past political stances on abortion.
More recently, on the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, the Biden administration’s statement notably did not include the word abortion once. Like his other statements, it focused more on reproductive health overall, making sure to mention that it included "the right to choose." “He’s been in public office since Roe v. Wade passed,” Bracey Sherman said. “I’m confused as to why it’s taken so long for this conversation to happen.”
When we cannot call things by their name, a stigma is allowed to remain. There is power in calling things what they are. By dodging the word abortion, Biden and his administration contribute to the idea that abortion is something you should be ashamed to speak about, branding it as something immoral or taboo. But if the president does, in fact, want to pursue "the right to choose," then calling abortion by its name is perhaps the most crucial part of that.
Refinery29 has reached out to Jen Psaki's office for comment.