COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Saturday sought to reassure abortion-rights activists about his commitment to protecting access to the procedure, vowing that if elected president, he would reverse the Trump administration’s policies limiting abortion rights and would seek to codify Roe v. Wade in federal law.
Making his first appearance before an abortion-rights group since rescinding his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for most abortions, the former vice president told members of Planned Parenthood that state-level efforts by Republicans to curb access to reproductive services had prompted him to change his mind.
“It became really clear to me that although the Hyde Amendment was designed to try to split the difference here, to make sure women still had access, you can’t have access if, in fact, everyone is covered by a federal policy,” that restricts access to most abortion, he said at a presidential candidate forum that was expected to draw most of the Democratic field.
But Mr. Biden also reversed himself on the issue in the space of a day after coming under immense pressure earlier this month from groups such as Planned Parenthood and a broader array of liberal activists who believe Democrats must not accept what they see as old compromises at a moment an emboldened right is seeking to outlaw abortion.
Sitting on stage between a pair of Planned Parenthood officials and gripping a handful of filled-out notecards, Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic who has long wrestled with how to balance his faith with his support for abortion rights, bristled for a moment when he was asked about what one of the moderators called his “mixed record” on abortion rights.
“I’m not sure about the mixed record part,” he said before turning to more favorable ground with the group. Mr. Biden vowed to reverse the Trump administration policy that would deny federal family planning money to groups such as Planned Parenthood that provide abortion referrals, winning applause from the ballroom of about 200 mostly female activists. He said that he would overturn the administration’s so-called Mexico City policy, which requires foreign non-governmental organizations to refuse to perform abortions in exchange for receiving American funding. And he pledged to enshrine Roe, the court case legalizing abortion rights, into the law.
Mr. Biden also won applause as he recalled the gains for women in the Affordable Care Act, noting that “pregnancy can’t be a pre-existing condition” any longer, but he stumbled over the statistics as he sought to highlight South Carolina’s high rate of maternal mortality.
“He says the right things, he really does, but he did seem like he bumbled a few times,” said Marda Kornhaber, 62, a Planned Parenthood volunteer who drove down from Charlotte, N.C.
Ms. Kornhaber said she favored Senator Kamala Harris. Ms. Harris, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren, received much more enthusiastic responses Saturday from an audience that likely would not have been excited about Mr. Biden even before his unsteady handling of the Hyde Amendment question.
But the more consequential question for Mr. Biden in the wake of his change of heart on public funding for abortion and, this past week, his expressions of nostalgia for a more civil Senate that included notorious segregationists, is whether he is losing favor from current or would-be supporters.
The former vice-president’s allies pointed to the enthusiastic reception he received Friday at South Carolina’s Democratic convention and Representative James E. Clyburn’s late-night fish fry, where Mr. Biden stayed until nearly midnight shaking hands and posing for pictures with a heavily African-American audience.
“I’ve not heard anybody say, ‘I was for Biden until I heard this,’” said James Smith, a former state lawmaker who ran for governor of South Carolina last year at Mr. Biden’s urging. “They know who Joe Biden is, and they’re not disturbed at all by any of this.”
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