WASHINGTON — In three words last week, Vice President Kamala Harris took a strong position in the churning debate over abortion rights — and may have finally seized upon an issue that is popular among key Democratic voters, playing out her strengths, and critical to the future of her party.
“How dare they?” she demanded.
Her question — more outspoken as an expression of outrage — came in a speech to Emily’s List, an abortion rights group, just hours after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion showing that at least five of the court’s conservative judges were willing to bring down. v. Wade. That would remove the constitutional right to privacy, which has guaranteed women access to abortion for more than half a century.
“How dare they tell a woman what she can and can’t do with her own body?” Ms Harris said at the gala in Washington DC: “How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future? How dare they try to deny women their rights and freedoms?”
Since then, Ms. Harris, the first female vice president and former top prosecutor in California, has been one of the most outspoken voices on abortion rights in the Biden administration. In an opening address over the weekend, she denounced life in a “troubled world” where Americans are forced to “defend the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies.” On Wednesday, she presided over the Senate when Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to write Roe’s abortion protections into law.
And on Thursday, Ms. Harris continued to speak out against the draft opinion during a small, on-the-record discussion with reporters on gender and women’s issues.
“All Americans need to realize that this is a direct attack on women’s freedom. And it’s an attack that could affect all Americans,” she told reporters. “There are some extremist Republican leaders who clearly want to punish and criminalize women. And you don’t have to look any further than some of the laws that have already been passed to know it’s true.”
Ms. Harris urged people to “understand their power” in ending the careers of politicians who oppose abortion rights.
From Opinion: A challenge for Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“I would urge people to vote for pro-choice candidates at the local, state and federal levels,” she said. “There is now a time for education, a time for communication and mobilization.”
The threat to abortion rights offers Ms Harris a chance to recover from early political stumbling blocks during her first year in office, including getting caught up in two of the toughest debates: immigration and voting rights. President Biden has replaced Ms. Harris to lead the way on these topics, both of which have been embroiled in controversy and delay.
Now Ms Harris has the chance to become the voice of the government on a subject that is complicated for her boss.
Mr. Biden, a lifelong Catholic, was against Roe in the early days of his career and only later came to embrace abortion rights. But he remains an unlikely champion of the matter. He made a strong statement after the draft opinion was unveiled by Politico last week. But until then, as president, he had never said the word “abortion” out loud.
By contrast, Ms. Harris has taken several opportunities to be candid about the prospect of the court overturning Roe. Assistants to the vice president say she plans to be even more aggressive on the subject in the coming weeks, as the court gets closer to issuing a final ruling on the case, which is expected by the end of June.
Some women’s rights groups said the potentially historic moment could make or break her legacy as vice president.
“This is the kind of moment that creates leaders, so in my mind I think the question every leader should be asking themselves is where they wanted to be? Where were they when this happened?” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center. “I hope everyone in the White House raises their hands to get involved.”
For others, the fact that Ms. Harris has entered a leadership vacuum is an inconvenient reminder that she doesn’t have much authority to set policy proposals in motion. As vice president, she too has avoided the word abortion and has largely followed the line of the White House and other Democratic leaders, placing responsibility for the action with voters, noted Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the reproductive justice group We testify.
“I wonder how much space she actually gets to be the best abortion champion she could be,” added Ms. Bracey Sherman. “Black women are asking you to do something. To have a black woman be the face of the lack of leadership – that feels very frustrating.”
Ms. Harris has a long history of focusing on issues of particular concern to women. She served as a California district attorney and later state attorney general. During her short career in the United States Senate, Ms. Harris introduced legislation aimed at improving maternal health. Last fall, Ms. Harris welcomed a group of abortion rights activists and abortion providers to a discussion at the White House.
The State of Roe v. Wade
What is Roe v. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Judge Harry A. Blackmun, a humble Midwestern Republican and defender of the right to abortion, wrote the majority opinion.
On May 3, Mrs. Harris was due to speak at the Emily’s List dinner. But 24 hours earlier, Politico published the draft opinion. Aides said the tone of the speech completely changed when Ms. Harris sat with her speechwriters to rewrite her comments.
During those conversations, Mrs. Harris repeatedly expressed outrage and surprise at the idea that a majority of the judges would terminate Roe, and asked her aides, “How could they?” and “How dare they?” Her speechwriters urged her to include that phrase in her comments to the group that night, according to aides.
On Wednesday, the vice president’s role in the Senate was purely ceremonial; no one expected a narrow vote that would break a tie.
But she took the Senate podium in a token statement by the White House. After the vote ended, she took a question from a reporter to make a brief statement about the importance of the midterm elections.
“This vote clearly suggests that the Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue,” she said. “A priority for anyone who cares about this issue — the priority — should be to elect pro-choice leaders.”
Ms. Harris ignored questions about a narrower, alternative proposal from Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who also want to codify Roe v. Wade, before leaving the Capitol in her motorcade.
Mark Buell, one of Ms. Harris’s first fundraisers since her first run for prosecutor in San Francisco, said the Biden administration had so far not taken full advantage of Ms. Harris’ legal experience in defining her role. He said bringing her to the fore could be a turning point for the vice president and an opportunity for her to boost Mr Biden’s supporters.
“This is a positive area that she has a deep understanding of,” said Mr. buell. “And the White House should take advantage of her understanding.”
Annie Karnic and Zolan Kanno Youngs reporting contributed.