ATLANTA — After two days of intense criticism, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reversed course Thursday and declared that he no longer supports a long-standing congressional ban on using federal health care money to pay for abortions.
Biden’s reversal came after rivals and women’s rights groups blasted him for affirming through his campaign aides that he still supported the Hyde Amendment.
With the shift, Biden could limit any damage from women’s groups and progressives who already are skeptical about whether a 76-year-old, more centrist white man can be the party standard-bearer in 2020. Yet it also marks a change from years spent trying to hold what he described as a ‘‘middle ground’’ on abortion.
Speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Atlanta, Biden didn’t mention the attacks he’s endured this week but tacitly agreed with his critics who frame the Hyde Amendment as another abortion barrier that disproportionately affects poor women and women of color.
‘‘I’ve been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents,’’ Biden said, opening a speech dedicated mostly to voting rights and issues important to the black community with an explanation of a significant policy shift.
‘‘I want to be clear: I make no apologies for my last position. I make no apologies for what I’m about to say,’’ he explained, arguing that ‘‘circumstances have changed.’’
A Roman Catholic who has wrestled publicly with abortion policy for decades, Biden said he voted as a senator to support the Hyde Amendment because he believed that women would still have access to abortion even without Medicaid insurance and other federal health care grants. Now, he says, there are too many barriers that threaten that constitutional right.
Republicans in conservative states ‘‘aren’t gonna let up,’’ Biden said, until they reverse the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Biden did not mention the pressure or criticism he’s received in recent days, instead saying he arrived at the decision as part of developing an upcoming comprehensive health care proposal. He has declared his support for a Medicare-like public option as the next step toward universal coverage. He reasoned that his goal of universal coverage means women must have full and fair access to care, including their constitutionally protected right to an abortion.
A Planned Parenthood representative applauded Biden’s reversal but noted that he has been behind the women’s rights movement on the issue.
‘‘Happy to see Joe Biden embrace what we have long known to be true: Hyde blocks people — particularly women of color and women with low incomes — from accessing safe, legal abortion care,’’ said Leana Wen of Planned Parenthood, the women’s health giant whose services include abortion and abortion referrals.
Other activists accepted full credit for pushing Biden on the issue.
‘‘We’re pleased that Joe Biden has joined the rest of the 2020 Democratic field in coalescing around the Party’s core values — support for abortion rights, and the basic truth that reproductive freedom is fundamental to the pursuit of equality and economic security in this country,’’ said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a leading abortion-rights advocacy group.
Repealing Hyde has become a defining standard for Democrats in recent years, making what was once a more common position among moderate Democrats more untenable, particularly given the dynamics of primary politics heading into 2020. At its 2016 convention, the party included a call for repealing Hyde in the Democratic platform, doing so at the urging of nominee Hillary Clinton.
At least one prominent Democratic woman remained unconvinced.
‘‘I am not clear that Joe Biden believes unequivocally that every single woman has the right to make decisions about her body, regardless of her income or race,’’ said Democratic strategist Jess Morales Rocketto, who worked for Clinton in 2016. ‘‘It is imperative that the Democratic nominee believe that.’’
Biden’s previous Hyde support gained new scrutiny several weeks ago when the American Civil Liberties Union circulated video of the candidate telling an activist who asked about the Hyde Amendment that it should be repealed.
His campaign later affirmed his support for his fellow Democrats’ call for a federal statute codifying the Roe v. Wade abortion decision into law.