It was a new era in Washington in 1981, and abortion rights activists were terrified.
With an anti-abortion president, Ronald Reagan, in power and Republicans controlling the Senate for the first time in decades, social conservatives pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow individual states to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that had made abortion legal nationwide several years earlier.
The amendment — which the National Abortion Rights Action League called “the most devastating attack yet on abortion rights” — cleared a key hurdle in the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 1982. Support came not only from Republicans but from a 39-year-old, second-term Democrat: Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background,” Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic, said at the time. The decision, he said, was “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.”
The bill never made it to the full Senate, and when it came back up the following year, Mr. Biden voted against it. His back-and-forth over abortion would become a hallmark of his political career.
As Mr. Biden prepares for the possibility of a third presidential run, women’s rights leaders and activists in both parties are recalling these shifts on abortion, which are likely to draw fresh scrutiny in a Democratic primary race where women are expected to make up a majority of voters.
Mr. Biden entered the Senate in 1973 as a 30-year-old practicing Catholic who soon concluded that the Supreme Court went “too far” on abortion rights in the Roe case. He told an interviewer the following year that a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.” By the time he left the vice president’s mansion in early 2017, he was a 74-year-old who argued a far different view: that government doesn’t have “a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body,” as he put it in 2012.
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