Biden Fumbled the Ball on Abortion

Abortion should have been an easy win for Biden, but his incoherent answer during Thursday's debate allowed Trump to come out on top.


Thursday's debate was an unmitigated disaster for Democrats. For perhaps the first time on a national debate stage, former President Donald Trump seemed relatively calm and articulate. In contrast, President Joe Biden was doddering, incoherent, and often seemed unable to string an intelligible sentence together. 

While questions surrounding Biden's cognitive abilities have already defined the 81-year-old president's campaign, any plausible deniability about his mental acuity was effectively destroyed by his abysmal performance on Thursday.

While Biden's clear cognitive decline has dominated reactions to the debate, he made another, underrated fumble.

Questions around abortion and the post-Dobbs abortion bans sweeping dozens of states should have been an easy slam dunk for Biden. According to one poll released in March, one in eight voters rank abortion as their top issue. When abortion has come up on the ballot, voters have resisted bans—even in red states like Kansas and Kentucky.

However, Biden's comments on abortion during Thursday's debate were a barely coherent stumble, one that highlighted—rather than minimized—weaknesses in the Democratic position on abortion.

"I supported Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters," Biden said in response to a question about whether he supported any abortion restrictions at all. "First time is between a woman and a doctor. Second time is between the doctor and an extreme situation. And a third time is between the doctor—I mean, it'd be between the woman and the state."

While Biden's meaning wasn't fully clear, I think a good-faith reading of his comments goes something like this: first-trimester abortions should be between a woman and her doctor (i.e. always acceptable), rarer second-trimester abortions should also be legal but are effectively only used in extreme medical circumstances, while post-viability third-trimester abortions should be left up to individual states.

The problem with this answer is that late-term abortion is extremely unpopular. According to a May Gallup poll, only 35 percent of Americans—including just 30 percent of Independents—believe abortion should be permitted in all circumstances. 

The general resistance from Democrats to support any restrictions on abortion leaves them vulnerable to having their position described with gruesome third-trimester hypotheticals. "He's willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby," Trump said. "Nobody wants that to happen."

Biden attempted to counter Trump's framing, saying that "Roe v. Wade does not provide for that. That's not the circumstance. Only a woman's life is in danger. She's going to die. That's the only circumstance in which that can happen."

While Biden is correct that Roe doesn't mandate that states allow post-viability (generally set between 20 and 24 weeks) abortions, his answer is unsatisfying. Nine states and the District of Columbia have no gestational restrictions on abortion at all and allow doctors to perform them for purely elective reasons. Trump took full advantage of this weakness.

"Under Roe v. Wade. You have late-term abortion. You can do whatever you want," Trump said. "Depending on the state, you can do whatever you want. We don't think that's a good thing. We think it's a radical thing. We think the Democrats are the radicals, not the Republicans."

While late-term abortions make up less than 2 percent of all abortions, that still amounts to around 10,000 abortions after 20 weeks. The fact that many states allow abortions with no regard to gestational age and with no requirement of a medical diagnosis or health emergency is off-putting to many voters.

Instead of seizing on the opportunity to highlight the devastating effects of complete abortion bans—perhaps using stories of women like Amanda Zurawski who were denied abortions despite facing life-threatening medical complications—Biden made a grave misstep and allowed Trump to come out on top.