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Kamala Harris steps into the spotlight on abortion rights, an opportunity for her and the movement

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke during a meeting about abortion rights and Roe v. Wade at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on June 14.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In 2019, then presidential candidate Kamala Harris criticized Joe Biden for not doing enough in his career for abortion rights and decried as “outrageous” the overall lack of attention to the issue in the Democratic debates.

“Women are the majority of the population in this country,” she declared to applause after bringing up the subject on her own in response to a separate health care question at the fourth debate. “Not nearly one word ... on women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today.”

Now, as vice president, Harris is the chief messenger and organizer for Biden’s administration on abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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Abortion rights advocates say there couldn’t be a better fit for the job, calling Harris — the first woman and first woman of color to serve as vice president — exactly the leader needed at a perilous time when a nearly 50-year-old federal right for women has been stripped away. The moment is also a significant opportunity for Harris to bolster her public image after 18 months of at-times negative headlines and falling approval ratings.

But Harris has a difficult task before her, trying to organize and satisfy a demanding coalition of elected officials and activists facing steep odds of restoring abortion rights nationwide. And there are questions about whether an administration led by a president she once criticized as behind the times on abortion rights — a Catholic who once described his views on the issue as “middle of the road” — will be willing to go far enough for the mission to succeed.

“Every crisis gives leaders a chance to be known in another context,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat. “And overturning Roe is the crisis of the past half century. Many people will get to know Kamala again through this fight. And I’m glad of that — I think she has a lot to say.”

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Harris has a deep history with abortion rights, dating back to her time in California as a prosecutor and the state attorney general. Her focus has intensified since a draft of the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked in May showing the court’s conservative majority was poised to overturn Roe. In fact, the day before the final court decision was released in June, Harris hosted seven Democratic state attorneys general at the White House to discuss ways they could use their authority to mitigate the impact of such a ruling.

Since late last year, Harris has held more than 10 meetings, calls, or events with different figures in the abortion rights movement, including state lawmakers, attorneys general, activist groups, medical providers, faith leaders, and privacy experts. Her staff has been included in most White House meetings on the issue. She’s taken the administration’s message to four states already, with significantly more travel expected. People who have attended those meetings said Harris has done a lot of listening and asked others to share what they’re experiencing on the ground, as well as prodding them for ideas about what to do next.

Advocates say such meetings aren’t just photo ops — they argue Harris is playing an important if not publicly appreciated role of bringing different coalitions together and using the spotlight that follows her to highlight diverse voices.

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“Shining a light on it, hearing from people directly, that’s how you create good policy, that’s how you deliver on a good response,” said Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the progressive feminist advocacy group UltraViolet.

Harris is seen as more willing to test the boundaries of executive power, a tendency not always shared by Biden himself. The two clashed on the campaign trail over how far a president could and should go in the absence of congressional action. In a September 2019 primary debate, disagreeing over what a president could do to reduce gun violence, Harris said, “Hey, Joe, instead of saying no, we can’t, let’s say yes, we can,” before he fired back, “Let’s be constitutional.”

“As a former attorney general, I know the work of these extraordinary leaders, and it is the work of being charged with great responsibility — the responsibility to safeguard some of our most fundamental rights and freedoms,” Harris said in the meeting Democratic state attorneys general, noting they have a broad range of authority on abortion rights, such as litigation and opting not to enforce abortion bans.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul attended that meeting and is one of the officials who pledged not to enforce the centuries-old ban on abortion still on the books in the state.

“My impression is that she and we all wanted to identify ways that we could be proactive in minimizing the harm from the decision we all thought was coming and ultimately to restore access to safe and legal abortion where it was going to be impaired,” Kaul said of the conversation.

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Harris’s staff says she is looking into all avenues to produce results, but that most significant change is going to require voters exerting their power in elections.

“She looks at it as the various levers you can pull,” said Josh Hsu, counsel to the vice president. “The focus on the states is not by accident; it’s where you can get something concrete done in the moment.”

Activists and abortion rights advocates say Biden is smart to make Harris the administration’s face on the issue.

“There is no white knight on a horse, there is no such thing at this point, but in terms of a guardian with a spear, that’s her,” said Diane Sands, a Montana state senator who has promoted abortion rights since before Roe and who met with Harris at the White House this month. “She is uniquely suited in this historic moment to play that role, and it means a tremendous amount to all of us who have fought this battle year after year and decade after decade.”

The fight also is a potential turning point in her vice presidency as questions swirl about whether Biden, 79, should run for reelection in 2024. A combination of Harris’s own missteps, politically difficult assignments such as the ongoing border crisis, flagging approval for the administration, societal challenges for women and women of color, and a right-wing ecosystem designed to amplify any mistakes has made for a bumpy first year-and-a-half as vice president.

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Abortion rights, however, are broadly popular with the American public and if Harris can rally the public behind the administration’s efforts, it could change the narrative about her political future. At 57 years old and in the second-highest office in the country, she is widely seen as a logical standard bearer for the party after Biden, even though her performance as a presidential candidate in 2020 was underwhelming and spurred persistent questions about her ability to head the party’s ticket.

“She’s the same person, right, but it’s an opportunity to see her in this moment of crisis and see her leadership,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist and vice chair of the board for the pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The fact that she has deep credibility is a huge asset to the administration and I believe the administration has recognized that.”

But seizing the opportunity comes with plenty of potential pitfalls. Already, activists have been frustrated with the pace and scope of action from the administration, though they do praise what has been done so far, including expanded access to federally approved abortion medication, and setting up a Justice Department task force. But Biden is facing pressure to go further, including declaring a public health emergency and exploring how federal lands could be used to expand abortion access as sites for clinics beyond the reach of state officials.

“What I say is, ‘I’m delighted with everything they’re doing, but they’ve got to do more,’” said Representative Madeleine Dean, a progressive Democrat from Pennsylvania.

Activists say their protests are part of pushing the White House to be bolder but also designed to give it support. But Thomas, of UltraViolet, said the decision to give Harris the lead role for the administration has been smart.

“I actually wonder if there would be significantly more pressure on the White House to do more if she wasn’t there,” Thomas said. “She would be helped enormously were the administration to be delivering in a more aggressive and concrete way.”

Ultimately, Harris and Biden say their goal is passing a federal law to ensure abortion rights nationally. That’s a virtual impossibility with the Democrats’ narrow congressional majorities unless an exception is made in the Senate’s filibuster rules, which the party lacks the votes to do right now. Killing the filibuster would also enable Republicans to push through a national ban, should they gain control of Congress.

In a recent interview with CBS, Harris seemed to struggle when asked if it was a failure of Democrats to not have codified Roe v. Wade when they had larger majorities.

“I think that, to be very honest with you, I do believe that we should have rightly believed, but we certainly believed that certain issues are just settled,” Harris said. Some progressives ridiculed her answer for being too cautious, a sharp contrast with the forceful Harris criticism of the party’s stalwarts on those 2019 debate stages.


But abortion rights advocates hope that Harris lives up to the potential they see in her in this moment, while noting she can’t do it alone.

”I think that people are ready and honestly in need for her to be the leader that we all know that she can be,” said Amanda Brown Lierman, executive director of Supermajority, a progressive women’s advocacy and political organization. “[It’s] a tremendous opportunity for her, but also for women across the country to ... give her the backing and the confidence to get this over the finish line.”


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.