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Harris starts her 2024 race with a fired-up speech on the fight for abortion rights

Vice President Harris gave impassioned remarks on reproductive rights at Howard University on Tuesday, her first political event after President Biden officially said he's running for a second term.
Stefani Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris gave impassioned remarks on reproductive rights at Howard University on Tuesday, her first political event after President Biden officially said he's running for a second term.

Vice President Harris made it clear in her first speech of the 2o24 campaign that the fight for reproductive rights will be a key part of her message on the trail, casting it as one of several freedoms under attack by Republicans.

In fiery remarks at Howard University — the historically Black college in Washington which is her alma mater — Harris echoed the reason that President Biden gave for running for a second term in office, a race where she will again be his running mate.

"We are living, I do believe, in a moment in time where so many of our hard-won freedoms are under attack," Harris said. "This is a moment for us to stand and fight."

"It is the tradition of this university, and dare I say the tradition of our country, to fight for freedom, to fight for rights, to fight for the ability of all people to be who they are and make decisions about their own lives and their bodies," Harris said to loud applause.

Harris attacked "extremist so-called leaders" for limiting access to abortion, including the recent decision by a judge in Texas to overturn the FDA-approved drug mifepristone, which is commonly and safely used in abortions, describing it as an issue of privacy.

"Open your medicine cabinet. In the privacy of your bathroom, in the privacy of your home, I wonder what's sitting up in there. ... You don't want me getting in your business, do you?" she said.

Harris linked limits on reproductive rights to what she said is a "national agenda" that also curtails voting rights, bans books in schoolsand limits teachers from talking about being LGBTQ.

Harris referenced the recent incident of the "Tennessee 3," the three lawmakersin Tennessee who spoke out on gun control. Two of the lawmakers, both of whom are Black, were expelled for a few days before being reinstated.

"Understand what is happening in our country. This is not a time to sleep on this. We cannot sleep on this. There is a national agenda at play," she said.

Harris has been to 18 states talking about reproductive rights

The issue of abortion access gave Democrats a lift in the 2022 midterm elections. Polls showed voters were alarmed that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. And recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling shows most people in the U.S. do not support banning drugs like mifepristone — including a majority of Republicans.

Since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, Harris has made reproductive access and care a primary focus, traveling to 18 states so far to talk about the issue, and meeting with stakeholders like medical providers, religious leaders and state lawmakers.

Democratic strategists say that Harris is a critical messenger for the White House, and now the campaign, when it comes to abortion.

"She's someone who has real credibility with the movement and has a long history. And that has mattered greatly in this post-Dobbs moment where women are in crisis," Karen Finney, a strategist, told NPR last week, before the president announced his reelection campaign.

Finney, who is also a former board member of NARAL, a pro-abortion rights group, said Harris deserves part of the credit for Democrats' success in last year's midterm elections because of her messaging on abortion.

"We've seen her continue to speak out about the issue and connect it to freedom and democracy and give voice to what women are feeling all across this country," Finney said.

For Harris, taking the lead on the issue also puts her on more familiar political ground after being viewed as struggling with other issues — particularly migration — earlier in the administration.

"Now she is really spending a lot of her time on an issue where the administration has the wind at their back in terms of the politics," said Lanae Erickson, a strategist with centrist Democratic group Third Way.

"I think that really helps to elevate her as a successful spokesperson for the administration and its policies," Erickson said.

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid contributed to this story.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.