Vice President Kamala Harris blasted Republicans as heartless extremists for trying to ban women from access to safe abortions, as she rallied in the key battleground state of Wisconsin on January 22, marking the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Vice President Harris has been pushing the Democratic effort to restore reproductive rights. In her speech, she singled out Donald Trump, who is tightening his grip on the Republican presidential nomination, for saying he was “proud” of helping to limit abortions.

With the help of Senate Republicans who denied outgoing President Obama and then incoming President Biden their right to each appoint a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Trump was able to nominate three conservative justices during his controversial term in office. Those conservative efforts to rig the court paved the way for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. That outcome had been unthinkable for decades.

“Proud that women across our nation are suffering?” Vice President Harris said. “Proud that women have been robbed of a fundamental freedom? Proud that doctors could be thrown in prison for caring for their patients? That young women today have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers?”

“How dare he?” she added.

The barrage reflects the White House’s intense focus on abortion rights during this year’s presidential campaign. Back in Washington DC, Biden convened a meeting of his reproductive health care access task force to discuss threats to emergency care and new steps for implementing executive orders on the subject.

The Democratic president described Roe v. Wade as “a fundamental right” that had been “ripped away.”

President Biden, Vice President Harris, first lady Jill Biden, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff are holding another rally focused on abortion in Virginia on January 23. In addition, the trip by Vice President Harris to Wisconsin is the first stop in her nationwide tour to talk about reproductive rights.

In her speech on January 22, Vice President Harris described abortion as an integral part of the country’s tradition of personal liberty.

“In America, freedom is not to be given. It is not to be bestowed. It is ours by right,” she said. “And that includes the freedom to make decisions about one’s own body — not the government telling you what to do.”

Vice President Harris shared stories of women who have miscarried in toilets or developed sepsis because they were denied help by doctors concerned about violating abortion restrictions.

“This is, in fact, a healthcare crisis,” she said. “And there is nothing about this that is hypothetical.”

Wisconsin faces an ongoing legal battle over abortion. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans argued that an 1849 law that was still on the books would effectively ban the procedure except in situations where a mother’s life was at risk.

“These extremists want to roll back the clock to a time before women were treated as full citizens,” Vice President Harris said.

Clinics across the state stopped offering abortions until a court ruled the law did not apply to abortions. Republicans have appealed the decision, and the case will likely be decided by the state supreme court. They are also pushing for a voter referendum that would ban abortions after 14 weeks, holding a hearing on the proposal on January 22.

The White House is pushing against the limits of its ability to ensure access to abortion without new legislation from Congress, where control is split between Democrats and Republicans.

On January 22, Biden administration announced it was creating a team dedicated to helping hospitals comply with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which requires hospitals receiving federal money to provide life-saving treatment when a patient is at risk of dying.

“Because of Republican elected officials,” President Biden said in a statement, “women’s health and lives are at risk … Even as Americans … have resoundingly rejected attempts to limit reproductive freedom, Republican elected officials continue to push for a national ban and devastating new restrictions across the country.” He and Vice President Harris “are fighting to protect women’s reproductive freedom against Republicans officials’ dangerous, extreme, and out-of-touch agenda,” he said. “We stand with the vast majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to choose, and continue to call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe in federal law once and for all.”

This is a position embraced by 69% of Americans, and the Biden campaign has run videos with Trump bragging that he overturned Roe v. Wade and suggesting that women who obtain abortions should be punished.

The Biden campaign released an ad in which a Texas woman, who is herself an OBGYN, talked about being unable to obtain an abortion for a planned pregnancy after a routine ultrasound revealed that the fetus could not survive.

“Because of Donald Trump overturning Roe v. Wade,” she said, Texas “completely” took her choice away and put her life in danger. “It’s every woman’s worst nightmare and it was absolutely unbearable. We need leaders that will protect our rights and not take them away.”

The Department of Health and Human Services said it would beef up training at hospitals around the law and publish new information on how to lodge a complaint against a hospital.

Some advocacy groups have criticized HHS as not responding aggressively enough to such complaints. Federal officials said they did not find any violation of the law when an Oklahoma hospital instructed a 26-year-old woman to wait in a parking lot until her condition worsened to qualify for an abortion of her nonviable pregnancy.

The White House has repeatedly turned to Harris, the first woman to serve as vice president, to make its case on abortion. Her outspokenness contrasts with Biden’s more reticent approach. Although he is a longtime supporter of abortion rights, he mentions less often and sometimes avoids using the word abortion even when he discusses the issue.

“I think the real star from a messaging standpoint is the vice president,” said Mini Timmaraju, head of Reproductive Freedom for All, the activist organization formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League. “Look, Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris. Joe Biden has asked Kamala Harris to lead on this issue. This is going to set us up for a great contrast with the other side.”

While Vice President Harris and Democrats have embraced abortion as a campaign issue, Republicans are shying away or calling for a truce, fearful of sparking more backlash from voters.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, recently made a plea to “find consensus” on the divisive issue.

“As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said during a primary debate in November.

While Trump has taken credit for helping to overturn Roe v. Wade, he has also balked at laws like Florida’s ban on abortions after six weeks, which was signed by its rightwing Governor and political rival – Ron DeSantis, another Republican candidate who was forced to drop out of the 2024 race for president after failing to connect with voters in the Iowa primary.

“You have to win elections,” Trump said during a recent Fox News town hall.

Vice presidents are rarely decisive figures in reelection campaigns. However, Harris has faced additional scrutiny because of Biden’s age — he would be 82 at the start of a second term — and her status as the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to serve in her position.

Abortion has reshaped Harris’ tenure as vice president after earlier struggles when dealing with intractable issues like migration from Central America.

Jamal Simmons, a former communications director for Vice President Harris, said abortion “focused her attention and her office in a way that nothing had before.”

“Focusing on abortion rights tapped into the vice president’s legal background, her political values and her substantive knowledge in a way that I saw no other issue do while I was there,” he said.

Colleen Long, Chris Megerian, and MI Staff

Associated Press

WAUKESHA, Wisconsin

Morry Gash (AP)