Arriving in Europe, Biden’s ability to carry democracy’s torch is complicated by Roe ruling

Every time he has traveled abroad, President Biden has asserted an unwavering commitment to democratic values, eager to strengthen ties with allies and to frame confrontations with Russia and China as century-defining fights for freedom and human rights.

But the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to end nearly five decades of a federally guaranteed right to an abortion in America. was a seismic shock to the country — and further evidence for world leaders of democratic backsliding in the United States. That perceived regression in American democracy — which survived an insurrection in January 2021 and remains deeply polarized — could undermine Biden’s proselytizing on the importance of freedom at two major summits this week in Europe.

Biden, who blasted the 5-4 ruling by the court’s conservative majority Friday as “a tragic error,” has lamented his lack of authority to protect reproductive rights and called on Congress to codify them in federal law.

On Saturday, before departing Washington for the Bavarian Alps where the Group of 7 summit gets underway Sunday, Biden again criticized the court for making some “terrible decisions,” a day after calling the ruling the “culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law.”

“It’s a realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court, in my view,” Biden said on Friday, noting that the conservative justices were “far removed” from how Americans feel about abortion rights. Just over 60% of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in all or most cases, according to the latest Pew survey this month.

The ruling drew responses from several heads of state who will be meeting with Biden in Europe this week and threatens to overshadow back-to-back summits where allies will be trying to make progress on a daunting mix of complex issues, whether it’s the war in Ukraine, combating climate change or offering the developing world incentives to resist help from China.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the ruling “a big step backwards,” reiterating his support for women’s reproductive rights. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that abortion “is a fundamental right for all women” and “must be protected,” adding an expression of support for “the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

And New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who will attend this week’s NATO summit along with Biden and most of the other G-7 leaders starting Tuesday night in Madrid, said the loss of abortion rights in the U.S. “feels like a loss for women everywhere.”

She added: “When there are so many issues to tackle, so many challenges that face women and girls, we need progress, not to fight the same fights and move backwards.”

Biden, 79, has always considered himself an institutionalist, reluctant to get behind updating the country’s governmental framework even as it undermines his agenda.

In January, however, he threw his support behind a Democratic attempt to change the filibuster rule requiring 60 Senate votes to advance legislation. He called on his party, which controls the evenly divided Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris breaks tie votes, to pass a bill ensuring federal voting rights protections. The effort failed when two moderate Democrats refused to acquiesce in changing Senate rules.

Codifying the rights enshrined in the original Roe decision into federal law would require a similar effort to circumvent the filibuster. As far as alternatives, Biden has long been skeptical of adding justices to alter the ideological balance of the Supreme Court. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Germany on Saturday that Biden “does not agree” with changing the makeup of the court.

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