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Vice President Harris expected to lean hard into abortion fight

LA Times logo LA Times 5/3/2022 Noah Bierman
Vice President Kamala Harris talked about maternal health while visiting San Francisco last month. She is poised to take a leading role in the fight for abortion rights as the November elections approach. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times) © Provided by LA Times Vice President Kamala Harris talked about maternal health while visiting San Francisco last month. She is poised to take a leading role in the fight for abortion rights as the November elections approach. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking elected woman in American history, is likely to play an expanded role in pushing the Democrats' political case on protecting abortion rights as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

"There is nothing hypothetical about this moment," Harris said at a fundraiser in Washington on Tuesday night for Emily's List, a group that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. "Women in almost half the country could see their access to abortion severely limited. In 13 of those states, women would lose access to abortion immediately and outright."

In a fiery nine-minute speech, Harris accused Republicans of "trying to weaponize the use of the law against women" while arguing that a host of other rights were at risk, including gay marriage and the use of contraceptives.

"But we say, 'How dare they? How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body?'" she added, her voice raised as she led the crowd. "'How dare they try to deny women their rights and their freedoms.'"

Harris would be a natural point person for the administration to vocally raise the issue on the midterm campaign trail if the Supreme Court adopts a version of the draft opinion, published Monday by Politico, that would jettison five decades of federal protection of abortion rights. The vice president has long championed issues tied to women's health, particularly those related to abortion rights.

Well before Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s draft opinion was published, the vice president had been scheduled to speak Tuesday night at the Emily's List event.

She spoke at Emily's List's 30th anniversary gala after launching her Senate bid seven years ago, making a trip to Washington to address the group before even speaking about her campaign in California.

Harris has received awards from abortion rights groups and used her position in the Senate Judiciary Committee to sponsor legislation and grill former President Trump's Supreme Court nominees over their abortion stances.

“She's been a champion of the pro-choice movement for a long time, so you will see her leaning in on the issue," said Karen Finney, a Harris ally who serves on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "She is a very important messenger to talk about the impact that this is going to have on women — from a health perspective, from the perspective of our bodily autonomy, from the perspective of rights, as a former attorney general.”

Harris even used the issue to attack then-presidential rival Joe Biden during the 2020 Democratic primary, criticizing his prior support for a legislative provision that banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortions in most cases.

"You made a decision for years to withhold resources to poor women to reproductive healthcare," she said during a debate.

The two united during the general election campaign in support of a law codifying Roe vs. Wade into statute, which the House has passed but lacks the 60 votes needed for Senate approval.

The administration has yet to decide how to deploy Harris ahead of the midterm elections, but advisors have said they expect her to travel extensively to help stave off what are expected to be big Republican gains in Congress, where Democrats hold narrow majorities.

Some Democrats have expressed wonder at times where the fierce former prosecutor who led the attack on the Trump administration's court nominees has been. Harris' passion on the issue of abortion could help her find that voice.

"She's a very effective messenger when it comes to human rights and civil rights," said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster who was a top staffer at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "And reproductive rights is certainly a part of that.”

She has already made women's maternal health a key part of her agenda, speaking out often about the disproportionately high rate of death among Black women and other people of color during pregnancy.

The abortion rights issue may also help Harris stake out a political identity in the Biden administration. Her two highest profile assignments — stemming migration from Central America and fighting against GOP-led voting restrictions — have failed to yield tangible victories, and she has suffered in public opinion polls.

Many Democrats say they do not expect Harris to take the issue on as a formal piece of her portfolio, in part because they believe President Biden should be making the central political argument. A devout Catholic, Biden has frustrated advocates by his reticence to engage in the abortion debate as GOP-led states have enacted ever stiffer abortion restrictions and the Supreme Court took up cases that set the stage for overturning Roe.

Harris' allies, at times, have also expressed concerns about her being identified solely with issues that affect women and Black people.

Republicans, who have turned Harris into a political punching bag, say they are not concerned if she uses abortion rights as a cudgel on the campaign trail.

“There's probably more comfortability in that than the other issues she’s tackled," said Josh Holmes, a former campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "Nevertheless, I'd have to see some success somewhere in order to project she'd be able to lead Democrats on this or any other issue.”

Democrats have not decided how to balance the passion many feel over the abortion issue with economic concerns, which have become central to voters as inflation has spiked.

Donna Brazile, a Harris ally and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the issue goes beyond politics — "It’s about our fundamental freedoms" — but conceded that individual candidates will have a say in how much of a role it plays in local races.

"Candidates must select how they will tell their stories," she said. "Some will focus on the economy, while others will tout their success at infrastructure, and perhaps the freedom to choose will also become a topic in 190 days. For now, I see it as a battle for the soul of our country and the far-right influence in the GOP."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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