Kamala Harris emerges as the voice of abortion rights in the Biden administration

US Vice President Kamala Harris has been among the most outspoken abortion rights voices in the Biden administration. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - With three words last week, US Vice President Kamala Harris inserted herself forcefully into the roiling debate over abortion rights - and may have finally seized on an issue that is popular among key Democratic voters, plays to her strengths and is central to the future of her party.

"How dare they?" she demanded.

Her question - delivered more as a statement 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 indicating that at least five of the court's conservative justices were prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade. That would eliminate the constitutional right to privacy that has guaranteed access to abortion for women for more than half a century.

"How dare they tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body?" Harris said at the gala in Washington, D.C. "How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future? How dare they try to deny women their rights and their freedoms?"

Since then, Harris, the first female vice president and a former top prosecutor in California, has been among the most outspoken abortion rights voices in the Biden administration.

In a commencement speech last weekend, she decried living in an "unsettled world" where Americans are forced to defend "the rights of women to make decisions about their own body".

On Wednesday (May 11), she presided over the Senate as Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to write Roe's abortion protections into law.

And on Thursday, Harris continued to speak out against the draft opinion during a small, on-the-record discussion with reporters who cover gender and women's issues.

"All Americans should realise that this is a direct assault on the freedom of women. And it is an attack that can affect all Americans," she told the reporters. "There are some extremist Republican leaders who clearly want to punish and criminalise women. And you have to look no further than some of the laws that have already been passed to know that it's true." Harris urged people to "understand their power" in ending the careers of politicians who oppose abortion rights.

"I would urge folks to vote for pro-choice candidates at a local, state and federal level," she said. "There is, at this moment, a time for education, a time for communication and mobilisation."

The threat to abortion rights presents Harris an opportunity to recover from early political stumbles during her first year in office, including becoming entangled in two of the most difficult debates: immigration and voting rights. President Joe Biden deputised Harris to take the lead on those subjects, both of which are mired in controversy and delay.

Now, Harris has a chance to become the voice of the administration on a subject which is complicated for her boss.

Abortion rights demonstrators near the Supreme Court in Washington on May 8, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Biden, a lifelong Catholic, was opposed to Roe in the early days of his career and has only later come to embrace abortion rights. But he remains an unlikely champion of the issue. He issued a forceful statement after the draft opinion was revealed by Politico last week. But up to that point he had never said the word "abortion" aloud as president.

By contrast, Harris has taken several opportunities to be outspoken about the prospect that the court would overturn Roe. Aides to the vice president say she intends to lean into the topic even more aggressively over the next several weeks, as the court gets closer to issuing a final ruling on the case, expected in late June.

Some women's rights organisations said the potentially historic moment could either make or break her legacy as vice president.

"This is the type of moment that creates leaders, so in my mind I think the question every leader should be asking themselves is where did they want to be? Where were they when this happened?" said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Centre. "I would hope that everyone in the White House is raising their hand to be engaged."

For others, the fact that Harris has stepped into a leadership void is an uncomfortable reminder that she doesn't have much authority to set in motion any policy proposals. As vice president, she, too, has avoided saying the word abortion and has mostly toed the line of the White House and other Democratic leaders, putting the onus of action on voters, noted Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the reproductive justice group We Testify.

"I wonder how much space she is actually being given to be the best abortion-access champion she could be," Bracey Sherman added. "Black women are asking you to do something. To then have a Black woman be the face of the lack of leadership - that feels really frustrating."

Harris has a long history of focusing on issues that are of particular importance to women. She served as a district attorney in California, and later as attorney general of the state. In her brief career in the US Senate, Harris introduced legislation that focused on improving maternal health. Last autumn, Harris welcomed a group of abortion rights activists and abortion providers for a discussion at the White House.

Mark Buell, one of Harris' earliest fundraisers since her first race for district attorney in San Francisco, said up until now the Biden administration had not taken full advantage of Harris' legal experience when defining her role. He said putting her at the forefront could mark a turning point for the vice president and present an opportunity for her to galvanise Biden's supporters.

"This is a positive area she has a deep understanding of," Buell said. "And the White House should take advantage of her understanding."

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