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Flashback: When Biden opposed Roe; when Trump supported it

The president who ended the right to abortion and the president now leading the charge to restore it switched places later in life.


One American president once declared they were “pro-choice in every respect” and that any decisions on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. Another American president once said women did not have the “sole right” to terminate their pregnancy and backed a Constitutional amendment to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade. 

The first was Donald Trump and the second was Joe Biden, each of whom made later-in-life turns on abortion before they reached the White House — but long after they’d become prominent figures on the national stage. In an irony of history, Trump appointed the decisive votes to overturn Roe v. Wade and Biden is now leading the party’s charge to preserve access to abortion. 

Their evolutions were on display in appearances on NBC News' Meet The Press, where moderator Tim Russert grilled them on the specifics of their latest stance.

In a 1999 appearance, Trump told Russert he thought abortion was “awful” but would defend the right to choose if he ran, including opposing legislation to ban so-called “partial birth abortion.” At the time, he had just left the Republican party to explore a third party presidential campaign. 

Trump later declared himself "pro-life" ahead of his 2016 run and promised to appoint judges who would "automatically" strike down Roe. In an interview with MSNBC host Chris Matthews that year, Trump said there should be “punishment” for women who receive abortions after a ban, though he subsequently walked that line back.

Biden voted for a partial birth abortion ban in 2003, part of a long history of public ambivalence over abortion that he said tested his Catholic faith. As the Washington Post's Matt Viser detailed in an article on his journey, a young Senator Biden said in 1974 that the Supreme Court went “too far” in finding a right to abortion. In 1982, he even broke with his party to vote for a Constitutional amendment that would have bypassed Roe by allowing states to enact abortion restrictions.

Over five decades and three presidential runs, however, Biden gradually reconciled himself to the party mainstream. While running for president in 2007, he told Russert that he had concluded long ago that Roe v. Wade is “as close to we’re going to be able to get as a society” to finding a compromise between faith and freedom on a difficult moral question. He noted he still opposed federal funding for abortion, however, a position he later reversed. 

Biden and Trump are hardly alone among White House occupants who grappled with the topic. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford (who later came out as pro-choice) were each uncomfortable with their party's platform on abortion during their 1976 race while Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush moved right on the issue over their careers.