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ATLANTA — Joe Biden said Thursday that he can no longer support federal restrictions on funding for abortion services, an abrupt reversal from his longstanding backing of the Hyde Amendment.
Speaking at a Democratic National Committee gala in Atlanta, the former vice president said that, in an environment where Republican-led states "are denying the poorest and vulnerable Americans" access to abortion, he could no longer stand behind such restrictions.
"I can't justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to ... exercise their constitutionally protected right," Biden said. "If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone's ZIP code."
It was just a day earlier that the Biden campaign had reaffirmed his support for the Hyde Amendment, while addressing reporting from NBC News tracing his voting record on abortion over his decades in public office. It led to a sustained wave of criticism of the Democratic front-runner for the first time since he announced his candidacy in April.
Earlier Thursday, at another DNC event in Atlanta, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called the Hyde Amendment "a direct assault at the black and brown communities like the ones I've been representing for most of my political career."
"We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said at an MSNBC town hall on Wednesday.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that "if you don’t support repeal" of the Hyde Amendment, "you shouldn't be the Democratic nominee."
Reflecting the late decision to address the issue on Thursday night, Biden did not read his remarks from the Teleprompter set on the podium, but from a printed draft he brought to the stage.
Biden began by reaffirming his support for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
He also noted that he, "like many" in Congress, had voted over the years on legislation that includes the Hyde Amendment.
"I make no apologies for my last position, and I make no apologies for what I'm about to say,” Biden said.
"When, in fact, there is this enormous pressure and even threat to close down clinics that are available in the past for women who do not have the funds, but are able to have them paid for privately as we've been able to do, that was one thing. But we now see so many Republican governors denying health care to millions of the most poorest, most vulnerable Americans by refusing even Medicaid expansion."
Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, has wrestled with the abortion issue throughout his career.
He said on Thursday that he's "never attempted to impose my views on anyone else as to when life begins." Biden added, "I have never attempted to impose my view on who should pay for it."
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., the national co-chairman of Biden’s campaign, told NBC News that Biden had been debating the issue internally.
“He’s a deep man of faith, he never hid from it, even tonight,” he said. “That had nothing to do with any calls, any press, any feedback. Because I can tell you I was with him from morning to the speech he gave, and that not one time, did we look at anything that had to do with Hyde."
Georgia is one of a number of Republican-led states that have moved in the past year to enact new restrictions on abortion, including "heartbeat bills" that make the procedure illegal early in a pregnancy.
While other 2020 contenders were quick to condemn Biden's continued support of the Hyde Amendment, some — particularly those who serve in Congress — had to acknowledge they had voted on funding bills that included Hyde.
Asked Thursday if he would vow not to vote for any future legislation that includes Hyde, Booker sidestepped it as "a tactical question."
"I fundamentally stand against the Hyde Amendment. If I'm president of the United States, I will reverse the Hyde Amendment."
Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser, highlighted Biden's shift in a Twitter thread.
"Women’s rights & women’s health care are under assault in a way that seeks to roll back every step of progress we've made over the last 50 years. State after state, including Georgia, are passing extreme laws in clear violation of the constitutional right protected by Roe," she wrote.