Remarks by Vice President Harris in a Conversation on Reproductive Rights
University of Texas at Austin
4:04 P.M. CDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon. (Applause.) Good afternoon. It is so good to be back at the LBJ, just the library and everything that it means and, of course, the university.
But I’m just so thrilled to be with all of you and to be back here. I visited here years ago. And it represents so much about the history of our country in terms of, when we — when we believe in what is possible and are committed to it, we can actually achieve it. So I’m very inspired to be here with all of you. Thank you.
MS. TIMMARAJU: Thank you, Vice President. It’s awesome to welcome you back to our home — my home state of Texas. I’m going to start with an opening question. And I’ve heard you talk about this a lot, but I think these folks would love to hear you talk about this.
This is such an important moment — a historic moment, truly — in the fight for our rights. Why did you decide to champion this issue at this moment in time in the role that you are in?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I was kind of born into the issue in that I — my sister and I were 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 actually one of the very few scientists who was a woman and a person of color. And she was passionate about her two interests — (laughs) — us and that.
And I have vivid memories as a child of my mother coming home and being, frankly, outraged from time to time about the disparities in the system, about the need for women to have access to the care they need. And what would upset her most in a way that I was aware of it was the need that she believed for us to give women dignity in the healthcare system, in particular as it relates to their reproductive health.
You know, my — I grew up with the word “mammary glands” all the time. (Laughs.) So these things were — were just a part of — from my childhood. And I have spent my career — as you know, that has been one of my major areas of focus throughout my career, starting with — as a prosecutor, which is to focus on the health, the safety, and the wellbeing of women and children.
MS. GARIBAY: Thank you. In Texas and across the country, anti-choice extremists are continuing to attack abortion rights and access. Right now, 15 states and counting are enforcing extreme and total bans on abortion. What steps are the Biden-Harris administration taking to protect women and folks who can get pregnant?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So let me say also, Mini and Julieta, it’s so wonderful to be on this stage with you. And thank you both for your leadership and your inspiration and your courage.
So, level set, we all know we are at a moment where the highest court in our land, the United States Supreme Court, just took a constitutional right, that had been recognized, from the people of America — from the women of America.
And I’d like to just step back for a moment and then I’ll be more direct in my answer. But I’d like to step back and — and share with you — and President Johnson’s family is here: As Vice President, I have now, as of now, met with a hundred –literally, a hundred world leaders by phone or in person — presidents, prime ministers, kings, chancellors.
And it’s important to remember that when we, as representatives of the United States of America, walk into these rooms, we walk in with a certain status and stature, representing what we believe to be the greatest democracy in the world, imperfect though we may be.
So, we walk in those rooms chin up, shoulders back, talking with others about the importance of the rule of law, human rights, civil rights.
But, you see, there’s something that comes with being a role model. And there are a lot of role models here, so you know what I’m talking about. When you’re a role model, people watch what you do to see if it matches up with what you say. So we are now in a situation where people around the world — and my greatest fear, among them autocrats — will look at their population and say, “You want to talk about this being the standard? This is where we should go? Well, this is what the United States just did, that great democracy.”
So it has profound ramifications, what just happened, for the women and the people of America and for the women around the world. And in that way, I think we all appreciate what our administration — the President and I and so many of us have — been doing to characterize this moment as truly a healthcare crisis with global — potentially global impact.
And so, what we have been doing is a number of things. The President has signed two executive orders, and we have taken a whole-of-government approach. So that means that agencies that range from Health and Human Services, to the VA, to the Department of Defense, to the Department of Justice are all taking a role of leadership.
We just convened, actually, the Cabinet for the second time this past week and talked about what each of the agencies are doing. So, for example, Health and Human Services, they are making sure that pharmacies, for example, are aware of their legal obligations and responsibilities to — to allow prescriptions to be filled.
Through the Department of Justice, there’s some extraordinary work that’s happening. I’ll mention a woman by the name of Vanita Gupta who is — many of you may know — was very active as a litigator in civil rights, who has been tasked with heading up the Department of Justice’s work in this regard. So that work is about collaborating where appropriate and — and possible with attorneys general from around the country — not this one in Texas. (Laughter.)
MS. TIMMARAJU: Not yet. Not yet. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) No. Not — not yet. Not yet.
On this issue around what should be done to remind the people of — of the states and of our country about their legal rights — for example, the right to travel, the right to association.
There’s been work that’s being done to — actually, through the Department of Justice, they’ve been doing some great work to — to gather pro-bono services so that healthcare providers, for example, can have legal assistance and advice when they need it.
So the VA, extraordinary work. We have 300,000 service members who are women. And through the VA, there has been a — an edict that women will be given, when they request, access to reproductive care. And — and so, there is work that’s happening.
But the challenge is that — that the issue has ultimately been, as the United States Supreme Court and its proponents — the Dobbs — the proponents of Dobbs have intended, it’s been pushed to the states. And this is not a political event, but there’s an election in 31 days, and it will matter. Because now it is — it’s going to matter who your county prosecutor is if you live in a place where there’s a state law that has criminalized doctors and nurses and healthcare providers. It’s going to matter who your attorney general is. It’s going to matter who your governor is.
And — and so, this is where we are. And this is part of why I’ve been traveling around the country to convene and speak with state legislators and others, including the legislators here in Texas, about what we can do to protect the rights of all people.
MS. TIMMARAJU: Thank you so much, Vice President. At NARAL and across the movement, we often talk about abortion access as a fundamental freedom central to Americans’ lives. How do you see the fight for reproductive freedom impacting the everyday life of Americans?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: In a profound way. And I appreciate what you, at NARAL, have been doing.
Listen, on this issue, I say: Let’s take the flag back. This is about freedom and liberty. At its core, this is about freedom and liberty, and on every level. I mean, take, for example, what is happening in jurisdictions where there’s no exception for rape or incest. Like, let’s understand what that means.
I spent the majority of my career as a prosecutor focused on crimes and harm and violence against women and children. I specialized in child sexual assault cases. The idea that there would be a policy and an approach that would say to someone who has survived an extreme act of violence and violation — and to then say to her, “And you do not have the autonomy, the authority, as it relates to your body that has just withstood that act, to make a decision about what happens to your body next” — it’s immoral. It’s truly immoral. So — and it is about freedom and liberty.
There’s another piece. We were talking earlier about this in terms of how we are also characterizing and how I think of it, which is this: One does not have to abandon their faith or their deeply held beliefs to agree that the government should not be making this decision for her. (Applause.)
It’s her decision to make and, if she chooses, with a loved one, with her priest or her pastor or her rabbi, with whomever she chooses. But the government shouldn’t be making this decision for her. But it — it is, Mini — it is absolutely about freedom. It is about liberty.
And it is also — if we just think of this in the context of where we are right now — LBJ Library — right? — where the leadership of that President really was in every way about understanding the fundamental principle of justice and equality — and then putting this issue in that context, and putting it in the context of where we sit right now, which is to honor an individual and a time where we understood that the progress of our nation and the strength, therefore, of our nation was because we were dedicated to a trajectory that was about an expansion of rights, not restriction of rights.
And that is what also is happening right now. So, freedom and liberty. Let’s take the flag back. Let’s take it back. (Applause.) Let’s take it back. (Laughs.)
MS. GARIBAY: Thank you. Thank you. And totally agree. And across the country, people are being more — more motivated than ever to protect reproductive freedom — groups like Afiya Center, Latina Institute, Deeds Not Words, MOVE Texas — and we’re seeing them take action, including (inaudible) and many others, by rejecting the anti-choice ballot measure in Kansas.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. GARIBAY: As you’ve traveled across the country, what have you seen and heard from people as they’ve watched anti-choice extremists put bans on abortion into place?
And also, if we can talk a little bit about the intersections — right? —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. Yes.
MS. GARIBAY: — of voting rights, immigrant rights, trans rights, all — and attacks on abortion.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s great, Julieta. So to your point, I early on asked my team — well, let me just say: I love Venn diagrams. (Laughs.) I really love Venn diagrams. You know, the circles, right? Three usually. (Laughs.)
And I asked them, “Tell me, with a Venn diagram, from which states are we seeing attacks on reproductive healthcare, voting rights, and LGBTQ.” And you would not be surprised. And sadly, this state featured prominently, among others.
And so then, looking at that, one must also see, Ah, but this also tells us there is a great opportunity in this crisis to rededicate ourselves to coalition building, to bringing together the folks who have been fighting forever and are currently fighting for voting rights — all of the champions of marriage equality and what we must still do in terms of trans rights; what we must do to bring together the people who have been fighting for years on maternal health and reproductive healthcare, and bring everyone together and see this as a moment that should remind us, again, of the history of this building and that movement. Because I think we’ll remember, then, all of the best movements that were about progress in our country, one of the key ingredients was the coalition building that happened. Right? (Applause.)
So, in that way, we — we — and so, Julieta, to your point, when I travel around the country, I mean, I am so in awe of those folks in Kansas who just organically said, “Uh-uh, we ain’t having it.” Right? (Applause.) It was so — it was spectacular. And they just — I’ve — I’ve watched their commercials. I just go online and look at their commercials. They’re fantastic. They’re really quite direct and — and to the point. “Government mandate” — to the point.
I’ve been traveling around, you know, so-called red states and blue states. And what we’re seeing is that it — one, we know this is an issue that also is about an intergenerational movement — right? — among the many intersections and that folks are realizing the movement that started decades ago, that culminated in Roe v. Wade, we must now — us here, sitting in these chairs, must pick up that movement and carry it forward.
And I think there’s a real energy and enthusiasm to fight for the rights that are at stake right now. (Applause.)
MS. TIMMARAJU: So this last — this question — and then we’re going to move to some audience-submitted questions — is very personal to both of us, but I know it’s very personal to you.
How does the central role that women of color have played in the history of fighting for abortion rights — and I’ll add, all of our fundamental freedoms — in every movement, there have been unsung women heroes in every movement — affect your thinking on the present-day fight for reproductive freedom?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I — honestly, on that, I would say there’s nothing new under the sun. (Laughs.) Women of color have been a part of every one of these movements, as have men of color, and been, you know, the — the coalition that has to be built and — and is being built.
But women of color — I mean, I was reflecting and talking with my team, actually, about relatively recent history around even when President Clinton was attempting to pass healthcare reform. And there was a group of, I think, a dozen Black women who formed, and I believe actually authored, the term “reproductive justice” — understanding that there is so much about this issue, which is a healthcare issue, that then is about the issue with healthcare and the healthcare delivery system in our country, one of those issues being the inequities and the need, therefore, to identify, articulate, and address those inequities based on race, based on income, based on location, including rural folks who are living in rural America, our Native women.
And so, I think that this is — there’s nothing new about this in that those leaders have always been there. They’ve — what also is true is that they’ve not always been acknowledged, but they’ve always been there — because they see and know what’s happening in their own communities and they are leaders in their communities, and often are the conscience for others on why we must act.
MS. TIMMARAJU: I think the good news is we’re now seeing many more leaders of color in these movements. So, thanks to — and we’re seeing you, and that’s really, really important.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.)
MS. TIMMARAJU: It is.
Okay, now is the fun part. I have questions — we have questions submitted by the audience.
So the first one is by Kiaya Jordan, who I met earlier, a Houston — (applause) — hello, my friend — a Houston-Tillotson University student and a Planned Parenthood advocate on her campus and her community.
“Texas has some of the worst maternal mortality rates in the country. And in Texas, Black women are three times more likely to die than white women due to causes related to pregnancy and birth. And it’s not just maternal mortality where Texas is failing Black and brown communities. Hispanic women in Texas have among the highest rates of cervical cancer incidence and mortality in the country.
Texas is failing our communities of color. What can the administration do to support the Black and brown women of Texas to ensure we are able to live happy and productive lives without fear of dying from childbirth or preventable cancer?”
Great question. Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Kiaya. That is a great question. (Applause.) That’s a great question. I actually worked on this issue in terms of trying to get legislation, which we did get some legislation passed, when I was in the Senate. And I’m proud to say we were able to get then, when we were elected and when we went to the White House, to elevate this issue to the stage of the White House, which is the issue of maternal health. Because to the point of your question, across America and in Texas, Black women are three times more likely to die, Native women twice as likely, rural women one and a half times more likely to die in connection with childbirth.
I have someone close to me who — whose sister-in-law, just a couple of weeks ago, died in childbirth. This is 2022 in America. And when you look at the issue, there are a number of factors. So, when we talk, for example, and study Black maternal mortality, you will find — and with — and with Latinas and — and people — women of color — you will find that, esp- — in particular, when we study — because the numbers are just the highest with Black woman — that she will have that experience regardless of her education level or her socioeconomic level.
It is literally that when she walks into that doctor’s office, that hospital, or the clinic, she is a Black woman that’s just not taken seriously — not as seriously.
So that then leads to an obvious point: Let’s address racial bias in the healthcare delivery system. So the bill that I had was to require and then fund training for healthcare providers of every level and every nature — so doctors, nurses. I wrote into the legislation that part of the trainers would be doulas — (applause) — yes — who are some of the most knowledgeable and effective in helping women get through their pregnancy and afterward.
We are, as an — as an administration, also now pushing for states to expand Medicaid coverage postpartum from what it has been, which is 2 months after she just gave birth to a human being to 12 months — right? — (applause) — understanding that that coverage includes what she may need for all of her postpartum needs, including physical checkups, pelvic exams, things of that nature, not to mention whatever else she may need.
And there is more work to be done. Because, also, when you study the issue, you then also realize that it is no coincidence to see the disparities in terms of who is affected and to understand also the stressors that uniquely affect those populations. What am I talking about? Well, poverty is trauma-inducing. Right? So you think about it in terms of what that means for the life experience, not to mention access to appropriate healthcare, access to transportation, access to — are they living in food deserts.
Women living in rural America — we have so many different healthcare deserts. Right? And so the approach also — and it has been part of our approach, which is a comprehensive one — as an administration is to look at all of these issues, including what we’ve done recently, which is to encourage a designation for hospitals — “birthing friendly” — so that we will then start to do the analysis of what are the experiences of families who are going through those particular and specific healthcare systems in terms of how they experience the process and the response to their needs.
So, I really appreciate you asking that question. But there’s a lot more work to do, and I need your help. Okay. (Applause.)
MS. GARIBAY: Thank you. I would say puras truths, a lot of facts.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, thank you. (Laughs.)
MS. GARIBAY: All facts. In June 24, millions of people lost fundamental rights thanks to the actions of elected officials they never had to vote on. If you were a college student in 2022 watching anti-choice extremists strip away our hard right — hard-won right, how would you channel the anger into action and change?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: There’s a lot there. So I’ll — let me just, if I may, add a couple of things in terms of just as a personal point.
I have a 17-year-old goddaughter, who I’m helping with her college applications. And — (laughter) —
MS. GARIBAY: That’s pretty cool.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) But actually, the next point I’m going to make, you guys will also get. And she said to me when the Dobbs decision came down, “Auntie, me and all my friends, whatever gender, are now looking at what is the law in the state of the school that we want to go to.” That’s real. That’s real.
We have a 23-year-old daughter, and I have an 81-year-old mother-in-law. Our daughter is going to have fewer rights than my mother-in-law.
So when we’re talking about young leaders, I mean, the — the way this is impacting college-age leaders — and I think of them as leaders — is profound in terms of the myriad of what this means — the facets of what this means for them.
And then I think of it in the context of how I was raised. I was raised by parents who were students at UC Berkeley in the ‘60s. (Laughter.) Yeah. So you get it. They were active in the Civil Rights Movement. I joke, but it’s true. I grew up surrounded by people who spent full-time marching and shouting for justice.
And I do believe that our best movements have had, as their leaders, students and people in that — in that stage of life — (applause) — be them in universities and colleges or doing something else.
And so I think about it in the context — and, in fact, we have purposely have been trying to visit, in these — these — in the travels, universities and young leaders to encourage them to do what they’re already doing, which is organize on campus; which is use social media in a way you know best, which is — it can be an incredibly powerful tool for organizing; to keep it up because we need you.
And I’ll — I’ll mention a very specific point that concerns me on this issue that I do believe our younger leaders can really be most influential on. I don’t have the map here. I don’t know where my staff is. But — so the other thing I asked my team to do was to show me a map of the United States and then color-code the states based on the state of the law in those states: complete abortion ban, 6-week, 12-week, 22 — right? — with exceptions, rape and incest. Not with — you would not be surprised to know that if you look at this map, it is — it’s like a quilt, the — all the different colors.
What does that mean? People are confused. And when we see that, we know that is a situation that is ripe for misinformation and disinformation and predators.
So back to our young leaders, who are the most talented in moving information effectively and quickly to get to their peers, I am also eliciting — I am begging our young leaders to please use that talent and skill in a way that a lot of the folks who have been in this movement for a long time aren’t necessarily the best at — (laughs) — to help get out the facts, and to help people know their rights, and to clear up the confusion, and most of all, to remind people they’re not alone.
Because there’s an additional point on this issue that must be, I think, acknowledged, which is the fact that, over the course of history, women have been punished for their sexuality. And with this issue, then, comes a profound amount of judgment, more so than we’ve seen in a long time.
So, then, among the issues is not only freedom, liberty, access to healthcare, but judgment and what that does to make that individual feel alone and to predictably result in silent suffering.
And so, again, that’s where our college-age — whether they are in college or not — leaders can really be most effective to create community where their peers are to remind them they are not alone, that they are not being judged, and to remind them of their rights.
MS. TIMMARAJU: I’ll add that our young leaders have already been at the forefront of our movement destigmatizing abortion. So all credit to those young leaders who have educated so many of us —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. TIMMARAJU: — and just change the conversation. And couldn’t be more timely for that to happen.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. Right.
MS. TIMMARAJU: One last question from Malissa Ybarra from — who is the health center manager for Planned Parenthood here in Austin. So I want to thank her — (applause) — for being on the frontline of this fight and taking care of our patients so — so wonderfully, with such compassion.
Here’s her question: “A lot of people are feeling disheartened after the fall of Roe and other recent attacks on reproductive freedom, such as congressional Republicans’ push for a nationwide ban on abortion and state-level bans and attacks on reproductive healthcare providers, including their ability to participate in federal programs. What keeps you feeling optimistic and hopeful about the future of abortion access in this country?”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You and you and all of you. I — again, and the — when we contextualize this issue, we can contextualize this issue also in the context of democracies. And I do believe that a democracy will be as strong as our willingness to fight for it.
MS. TIMMARAJU: Yeah.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right? (Applause.) And so the future of this issue will be a function of our willingness to fight for this, understanding that, again, it is about freedom, it is about liberty, it is about justice. And — and I’m going to come back to the point that although this is not a political event, 31 days matters. Because here, I’m just going to say the fact. It’s not political. It’s not an — it’s not an advertisement, it’s just a fact.
So there’s this thing in the United States Senate called filibuster. (Laughter.)
It’s a library. We talk about things like facts here. (Laughter.)
And it has been used over the years in a way that I think many of us would agree has been used to obstruct progress.
So, another fact: President Biden has said he will not let the filibuster get in the way of signing the Women’s Reproductive Health Act. (Applause.)
MS. TIMMARAJU: Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: An additional fact is that we just need to hold on to the Senate and we need two more. (Applause.) Just facts. Just facts. That’s it.
MS. TIMMARAJU: All right. Well, this has been an incredible conversation. It’s just an honor to be here with you today. I want to thank Julieta for being my partner in this effort, in this event — (applause) — and for all your work for so many of our communities in this country.
And, Vice President Harris, just want to thank you for all the incredible work the administration is doing, for having these candid conversations across the country. And we look forward to seeing you out there a few more.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.)
MS. TIMMARAJU: Thank you for coming.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you all.
END 4:39 P.M. CDT