Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, Connecticut
1:15 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Hi. (Laughter.) Hey, everybody.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: So exciting to have you here, Madam Vice President. Thank you so much for being here.
I want to thank you, Representative Hayes, Secretary Cardona, CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, and my friend, Governor Lamont, as well for joining us.
And thank you, Central Connecticut State University, for hosting this conversation. (Applause.)
So, as Representative Hayes has spoken, we are now 100 days past the fall of Roe, since the Supreme Court eliminated our constitutional right to abortion. What that means is one in three women — more trans, nonbinary folks — cannot get access to care in their own communities.
And we already know the people who are most affected are the people who already have been living at the margins of systems; they’ve already faced a lot of barriers to care. And I — you know, the stories that we’ve heard over — you know, over the months of what people are experiencing in getting that care has been incredibly traumatic.
And we also know that at the federal legislative level, we have seen action in Congress. We have seen representatives, like Representative Hayes, who have led and supported the passage of the Women’s Health Protec- — Protection Act in the House.
At the state level, Connecticut has allowed more licensed medical professionals to perform abortion care, and protected patients and providers. And we’re going to get into what the White House is doing.
But first, I just have to shout Madam Vice President out. You have been the most amazing leader in this moment. You have traveled the country since the Dobbs decision. You have been all over this summer. She’s talked to 150 legislators from 17 states, leaders in higher ed, healthcare providers, con law experts, state attorneys general — literally disability advocates, faith leaders, everyone who has a stake in this conversation, which is everyone.
You have been there and you have been leading. But it’s also not brand new for you, right? You have done this work in every seat that you’ve held, from California AG to U.S. senator and now Vice President.
Thank you for being such an unwavering voice around sexual and reproductive rights.
Why is reproductive freedom an issue that you’ve chosen to focus on right now, even before Dobbs?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I — I actually grew up with the issue of women’s health, as Alexis (inaudible). And it’s so wonderful to be with you, Congresswoman. And please send her back to Congress. (Laughter and applause.)
So, they know — because we have worked together for so long, but I’ll share with the new friends — I was raised by a mother who had two goals in her life: to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer.
My mother was a breast cancer researcher, and she was one of the very few scientists doing that work who was a woman and, in particular, as a woman of color.
And so, this is an issue — the issue of women’s health, the importance of women receiving the care they need and deserve, the issue of recognizing women who have been marginalized, the issue of fighting for the dignity of women in the healthcare system was ingrained in me literally from the time I can remember as a child.
And — and it has, in many ways, informed my life’s work in the work that I’ve done that has really been about prioritizing the health, the wellbeing, and the safety of women.
And — and so when the highest court in our land, the United States Supreme Court, took a constitutional right, that had been recognized, from the people of America, from the women of America, there was no choice — and we all know this; that we all had to stand and fight for these fundamental rights of freedom and liberty and dignity and choice.
And so — but, you know, the roots of it all for me are literally my childhood. And when I think about where we are now, as we discussed with some of the leaders who are here in the room, I do believe that we all know that there was some movement on this issue that was started generations ago. And a milestone in the success of that movement was Roe v. Wade, which was about half a century ago. And it is now incumbent on us, as the leaders of this moment, to pick up that movement and to do what is necessary to reaffirm, regain, and fight for those rights. And so that’s where we are. (Applause.)
CONGRESSWOMAN HAYES: Thank you, Madam Vice President. It is definitely an honor to have you here and in my district. And to that point, I believe that leaders are chosen for such a time as this. And you are here in this moment for a reason.
We recognize there’s a long arc ahead to rebuild and even reimagine the right to abortion in this country. Can you talk a little bit about what the Biden-Harris administration has done thus far to protect access to abortion post-Roe and how the administration is envisioning this work, moving forward?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. So, to put the work of our administration in context, let’s — let’s mention a few things.
One, Clarence Thomas said the quiet part out loud. Because for those of us who have read the decision and the concurring opinions, we know that it is very much in the trajectory of those who have taken away this right of privacy, that they are looking at same-sex marriage and the right to contraception.
This is — he said the quiet part out loud. It’s literally in his opinion.
Let’s — let’s talk about the fact that we knew that 100 days ago when the decision came down, and we warned about it. And then, most recently, you see what’s happened at the University of Idaho, where the university has basically said that they’re going to prohibit and not give out contraception to their students.
So, it’s already happening. And we know that all of these hard-won fights will be temporary unless we are vigilant in upholding them, these rights.
So the way that our administration has been thinking of it in a number of ways, including what we call an all-of-government approach. And so we have, through our Department of Health and Human Services, issued guidances and instructions — for example, to pharmacies, about what their legal obligations are, in terms of the dispensing of medication.
We have, through our Department of Justice and, in particular, the Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice designated Vanita Gupta, who many of you may know from the leadership conferences — a great civil rights litigator and fighter — to be the head of the DOJ task force, to look at this issue to determine where there is a role for the United States Department of Justice to weigh in on what’s happening in the states and defend the legal and constitutional rights of people in our country on this issue.
They are — they are gathering pro bono legal support, so, basically, law firms and legal associations to give free assistance, legal assistance to folks who are going to need it, including healthcare providers, who in many cases are vulnerable to and explicitly potentially liable for criminalization in some of these states. Right?
We are looking at it through the context of what our federal communications division can do. And that commission, the communications commission, to look at — and they’ve actually sent out a letter to the 15 top providers — AT&T, Verizon — to get their data policies and their data protection policies so consumers can be aware of what’s at risk but, hopefully, so we can also inform everyone of their rights when it comes to location services and what vulnerabilities users may have to people with bad intentions getting that information to potentially hold people liable or, worse yet, criminalize and prosecute people.
We have issued executive orders — the President signed executive orders, two in particular — that support a lot of this and include what we are prepared to do to fight for the freedom to travel — the constitutional right to travel, right? Because remember, we’re looking at, I think, now a dozen states at least that have banned — essentially banned abortion.
And what is that going to mean? There’s still a lot of confusion because of the patchwork — different states doing different things. What is that going to mean in terms of the legal rights and protections available to an individual who needs abortion care and leaves a state where it’s banned and goes to a state where it is still legal? And what legal protections will that person have, much less the receiving state have?
So there’s a lot of work that’s being done by our administration through the federal agencies that are a part of the federal government and in coordination with a lot of state leaders and, of course, leaders in Congress.
But this is truly an issue that is going to be about what all of our movements have been about, frankly. It’s going to — there’s going to be litigation. There’s going to be the need to push for litigation and legislation. There’s going to be the need for organizing. There’s going to be the need for coalition building.
Because think about it. I’ve actually asked my team to do a Venn diagram. I love Venn diagrams. (Laughter.) I just love Venn diagrams. You know, the three circles — right? — sometimes there are more — and the intersection.
And so I asked them, “Show me from which states we are seeing attacks on voting rights.” One circle. “From which state are we seeing attacks on LGBTQ rights.” Another circle. “From which states are we seeing attacks on women’s health rights.” You would not be surprised to see the intersection.
But what that also tells us, that Venn diagram: Oh, coalition-building potential, that we should maximize bringing together all the folks who have historically and traditionally and are currently fighting for voting rights with all the folks that are fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and women’s health rights. Bring everybody together in a way that we build the coalition.
And then also remind people of what I think is an essential point, which is that no one should be made to fight alone, especially when you’re fighting for fundamental rights. (Applause.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: I’m just going to jump right back in for just a second. And the history teacher knows the answer to this question, but I would like to hear it from Madam Vice President. In a state like Connecticut, where those rights have been codified —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: — can you share with these folks what a national ban means?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, so much credit to the governor, to the state legislators, and to members of Congress in this state for providing a role model for what it should and can look like. And — and I — (applause) — yes. Yeah.
And — and also, let’s recognize that they explicitly, in the opinion, and the proponents of the Dobbs decision, basically said, “Oh, let’s take — let’s push this to the states. State voters can decide.” Not ironically, but — but not by coincidence, it’s the same people who said, “Let’s push it to the states to decide.” A lot of them are the same people who are denying voting rights. Okay? Right? So check that out.
But what it would mean is that if we could get federal legislation — which the President is prepared to sign the Women’s Health Protection Act — to codify, which means put into law, the protections of Roe v. Wade, what it would mean: These states that are criminalizing healthcare providers — doctors, nurses, other healthcare providers — could not do it; they’d have to stop. These states that are doing this abhorrent, immoral thing of saying “no exception for rape or incest” would have to stop.
Think about that. The importance of a national law — a federal law — would mean they couldn’t do that anymore. And if they did, they’d probably be sued.
And I mean, I have to say on the rape and incest piece, you know, I — you asked, Alexis, about what motivates me on this issue: It includes that for — when I was a prosecutor, I specialized in child sexual assault and crimes of violence against women and children. The vast majority of my career as a prosecutor was focused on that. And the idea that laws would be passed that would deny a person who has just endured such an act of violence and violation, and to subject her to the requirement that she report it or that she just literally has no ability to make a decision about her own body after her body has been abused at such a level, it’s immoral. And a national law will handle that. (Applause.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: Yes. Yes. I mean, you have captured so well the chaos and the confusion on the ground of what is actually happening. And we’ve already seen it — right? — because we are a year into Texas. We have seen patients who are traveling upwards of 400 miles one way just to get access to care to get the — you know, the first part of a medication abortion and then get back in their car and drive back home.
And we also know, as you pointed out, like, it’s not just about access to abortion, right? It’s contraception. They were coming — they’re literally trying to hold people hostage in their states with these right-to-travel bans.
And you mentioned the — the kind of intersecting issues. I just want to call out the meeting that you called us into — a group of reproductive rights leaders and civil rights leaders met a couple — just a couple of weeks ago in your office to talk about just this moment that we are in and these intersections, and I think particularly around — if you could speak a little bit more to voting and, you know, concerns that we have literally about our democracy in this moment.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I’ll — I’m going to go macro for a moment, on this point. So, as Vice President, I have now had direct conversations, in person or by phone, with 100, at least, world leaders — presidents, prime ministers, kings, chancellors.
One of the things, traditionally, about the United States is that we could walk into those rooms, chin up, shoulders back, talking about what it means to be a strong democracy. Imperfect though we may be, we could talk about what it means to be a strong democracy. We could then have the authority and the standing to talk about the importance of human rights, rule of law.
And with that — as this room knows; it’s a room full of role models — we positioned and — ourselves and were thought of as a role model of democratic principles.
Well, here’s the thing about being a role model. When you’re a role model, people watch what you do to see if it matches what you say. (Applause.) And now the highest court in our land took a fundamental right from the people of America.
So let’s appreciate what this means at a macro level, because nations and leaders around the world watch everything we do and have watched this, not to mention my fear that autocratic governments and leaders can say to their people, “Well, you want to talk about, ‘We should be a democracy, democratic principles,’ look what the United States just did.”
So, the impact of this, quite literally, will invariably impact women and people around the world. That’s how significant this is in terms of the numbers we are talking about of human beings who are going to be impacted by this. So, I do want to just mention that.
In terms of civil rights leaders, you know, I am often reminded of and often paraphrase, which I will do again right now, the words of Coretta Scott King. And she famously said: The fight for civil rights — which is, of course, the fight for justice, it is the fight for equality — the fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation.
And I think she had two points. One is that it is the very nature of this fight that whatever gains we make, they will not be permanent. So, understanding it’s the nature of it, the second admonition, I think then, is: Knowing it is the nature of it, do not be overwhelmed; do not be dispirited. It’s the nature of it that we have to be vigilant and fight for it. And so that’s where we are. And when I look around this room, I know we’re up for this fight. (Applause.)
REPRESENTATIVE HAYES: All my life I had to fight. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It ain’t over.
REPRESENTATIVE HAYES: We can’t talk about abortion access or reproductive healthcare or protecting our rights without talking about Black maternal health.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
REPRESENTATIVE HAYES: Another issue on which you’ve been such a leader, as evidenced by your introducing the “Momnibus” in the Senate.
Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. And the loss of abortion rights, largely across the South and Midwest, will only compound that.
These health outcomes are largely impacted by structural racism and various barriers to care. As a member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus in the Congress, my question for you is: What is the Biden-Harris administration doing to tackle the Black maternal health crisis?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. And you’ve been a great leader in the Congress.
I’m very proud that we have, for the first time, elevated the issue of Black maternal health to the stage of the White House. I literally convened women from around the country to come to the White House, and we held a day of action on this issue — first time.
And to the Congresswoman’s point, Black woman are three times more likely to die; Native women, twice as likely; women in rural America, one and a half times.
When it comes to racial bias in the healthcare delivery system, we know that is a huge contributor, in particular to Black maternal mortality. And — because what the data proves is that it literally has nothing to do with her education level or her socioeconomic level. It has to do with the fact that when she walks into that doctor’s office or that clinic or that emergency room, she, as a Black woman, is not taken seriously. And so there is that.
There are the stressors that she, that Native women, that women in rural America, that women in low-income communities face in life that also contribute to this. The stressors of, you know, living in poverty can be trauma inducing. And so, then you start to layer on these issues. And to your point about systemic issues, there’s a lot there to unpack, but it doesn’t require rocket science to figure it out.
And — and so what we have been doing is, one, elevating the issue, but then talking about — for example, when I was in the Senate, and we worked together on this bill that — I carried a bill that was about acknowledging the racial bias in the system and what we need to do to then train healthcare providers to understand that, identify it, and be aware of it.
There’s the work that we need to do that is about putting resources into these communities.
Rural America — there are healthcare deserts where there are no hospitals, right? Where there are no healthcare providers. So, if you are that woman and you have an issue or a concern, it ends up being — it has to end up being so serious that you would travel hours to go get the healthcare you need, as opposed to something in another area of the country where you would have more immediate access to healthcare and you could handle it right away, which we know would produce a better outcome.
So there is a lot more work to do about this, and so we have done the work of putting resources into a lot of these issues to start to address it. But there’s more work to be done.
And we’ve been talking about this and working on this, as you — you know, for years, before the Dobbs decision came down. And then when you compound it with what the Dobbs decision means on this issue, it compounds on the concern that the resources are not there to address what will be a growing need.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: And it should come as no surprise that the same states that have enacted these bans — these same 17 states are the ones with the worst maternal mortality rates. Right?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s exactly right.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: So — it is.
So, I would like to talk about the Second Gentleman for a second. Is that okay?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, okay. (Laughter.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: Because —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s my husband. (Laughter and applause.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: So, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff recently wrote an op-ed about why abortion is a basic human right. And I — you know, look, as — as someone who is — I’m sorry, and this is also a question that’s coming from Dr. John Morton, who is a provider. He said, “As a physician and an abortion provider myself, I agree. I’m heartened to see more men activated in the movement. How and why should men show up for reproductive rights, recognizing they’re not at the center of the issue, but still impacted by the loss of freedom?”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, one, I’m so glad you raised that point, Alexis, and the doctor, because I really do believe we have to invite and, in some ways, give permission for men to use their voices on this issue and not feel that they have to be out of the room because the conversation might make them uncomfortable. (Laughter.) They need to get comfortable with it, understanding it is the woman’s choice, not theirs, and that we need — need everyone to participate in this because this is — it is about fundamental rights and right to privacy.
When Doug wrote that op-ed, he talked about something we talked about in our family immediately when the Dobbs decision came down. We have a 23-year-old daughter. I have an 81-year-old mother-in-law, Doug’s mother. Ella, our daughter, will have fewer rights than my mother-in-law. Can you imagine, in 2022?
You know, we’re supposed to be a nation that grows and strengthens itself and thinks about progress, which should include the expansion of rights, but we have now restricted rights to the point that two women in the same family are going to have such a disparate experience in terms of a fundamental right, going backwards, not forwards.
So he talked about that. And — and I think that it is — again, I think it is so critically important that all people participate in this conversation, understanding not only that it will affect the people in their life who are directly impacted by access to reproductive health, but it affects them in other ways also, which, back to my point about what Clarence Thomas said, you know, once you start taking away rights and justifying it, you know, as they say, they will come for everyone else and then they will come for you.
And so let’s be clear about that also, which is we are witnessing an erosion. And almost by definition, erosion can be infinite in terms of that process if we don’t stop it, and everyone could be in its path. And I think that was a part of the essence of what he was talking about in that piece.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: I think our next question actually follows right up on that. It’s an audience question from Talia Asbury [ph], who is a young person. “What do you say to young people in this moment about the future of access? What do you say to people like Maddie, from the letter that I read? What do you say to 17-year-old me who was pregnant and really struggling with how I was going to make that decision? What do you say to future generations about how we can secure these rights and that access?”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. I mean, the first point that I will make is: You are not alone. There is, I think, an aspect of this kind of attack on rights that has the effect, if not the intention, to make people feel that they are without power and to make people feel alone.
Let’s — let’s not overlook that there’s so much about what is happening now that is profoundly steeped in judgment about women’s sexuality. So not only has a right been taken, but there is a tone and a tenor by which it is happening that is highly judgmental. And, therefore, intended, probably — maybe sometimes unintended — to make a person feel ashamed and alone.
So my first point would be: You are not alone, and you have nothing to be ashamed about.
And we have to say that and mean it. And that gets back to also the importance of the coalition building. There’s a piece of it that is about encouraging and applauding people who stand up and fight for the rights of themselves and others, and encouraging that in our — in our kids, in our siblings, in our aunties, in our grandmothers, in our grandfathers. And saying, “Hey, this is admirable to get out here and — and speak with force and feeling about this issue,” and giving ourselves and each other permission to do that, because what’s at stake really is so profound.
And I think that’s a big part of the advice I’d give right now is: You’re not alone, and so let’s organize. Let’s organize. Let’s link arms, and do what we need to do, including in the next 34 days, around the country. (Applause.)
This is not a political event, but it is a fact that in 34 days there is a midterm coming up. (Laughter and applause.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: Indeed.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And facts must be spoken. (Laughter.)
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: Yes, yes, we must speak truth. Right? Because stigma is — is used as a strategy. So is misinformation, so is contorting people’s, you know, own ideas about their faith.
And I want to, kind of, come with one final question that that comes from Bishop John Selders, who — who asked: “What would you say to someone who understands why abortion should be a personal decision between a pregnant person and whoever else they decide to include in the conversation, but believes they can’t reconcile it with their faith?”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think that’s such an important point to raise because it’s real. It’s just — it’s a real point. And one — I appreciate how the question was framed, which is: It is her choice and it should be her choice to make, if she chooses, in consultation with a loved one, with a healthcare provider, with her faith leader.
And more specifically on the point, I say this: One does not have to abandon their faith or their beliefs to agree that the government should not be making that decision for her. (Applause.)
So it’s — it’s literally that basic, which is also about — also consciously and affirmatively respecting that we should not — there’s nothing about this movement that in any way is trying to convert people, to change people in terms of what are their deeply held beliefs as it relates to their faith. There’s nothing at all about that. It’s simply saying the government shouldn’t be telling an individual woman what to do. And I think we should speak that affirmatively so we don’t leave the inference being something we don’t intend.
MS. MCGILL JOHNSON: I think let the church say, “Amen.” (Applause.)
REPRESENTATIVE HAYES: Madam Vice President, thank you so much for joining us here today.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
REPRESENTATIVE HAYES: Thank you for coming to Connecticut. Thank you for visiting me and my district. Thank you for coming to Central. And thank you for being so generous with your time on this very important topic. (Applause.)
We are so much better off as a country having you in this place at this time. Thank you. (Applause.)
END 1:50 P.M. EDT