DES MOINES — Vice President Kamala Harris said on Thursday that a lawsuit seeking to overturn federal approval of a widely used abortion pill amounted to an attack on “our public health system as a whole.”
During her first trip to Iowa as vice president, Ms. Harris portrayed Republican attempts to impose a nationwide ban on abortion as immoral and extreme.
“If politicians start using the court to undo doctors’ decisions, imagine where that can lead,” Ms. Harris said as a judge in Texas considered whether he would issue a preliminary injunction that could take the pill, mifepristone, off the market.
Ms. Harris has taken a lead role on abortion as President Biden prepares to announce an expected run for re-election. Without the votes in Congress to enshrine abortion protections into law, the White House hopes Ms. Harris can help sustain the sort of anger that motivated Democratic voters during the midterm elections.
In her appearance Thursday at Grand View University, Ms. Harris framed the abortion issue as part of a broader struggle for health care and privacy, a strategy aimed at galvanizing the broadest coalition of voters.
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“This is not only about reproductive health,” Ms. Harris said, adding that overturning F.D.A. approval for abortion medication could set a dangerous precedent, potentially affecting the availability of other medications.
The last-minute trip to Iowa, planned by the vice president’s team only in the past few days, is part of a push by Ms. Harris to get out into the country more to overcome an impression from allies and critics alike that she has not forged a definitive role in the administration.
Top Republicans have flocked to Iowa in recent weeks in anticipation of the 2024 Iowa caucuses, including former President Donald J. Trump; former Vice President Mike Pence; Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador; Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Democrats have overhauled their primary calendar, replacing Iowa with South Carolina as the party’s first nominating contest. But the rush of Republicans to Iowa presented an opportunity for Ms. Harris to call attention to restrictions that could be imposed by Republican-led legislatures.
“We need to show the difference that while Republicans are taking health care rights away from them, we in the Democratic Party are saying that is not acceptable,” said Elizabeth Naftali, a deputy finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Ms. Naftali said that Democrats could not allow a “steamroll by Republicans” just because the primary calendar had changed.
Most abortions are now banned in more than a dozen states following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. While Iowa has not banned abortion, it is one of many states the administration fears could soon enact more severe abortion restrictions.
Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court found that there was no right to an abortion under the state’s constitution. A ban on the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy has been blocked by a state judge since 2019 but Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has appealed the decision to the higher court. The state currently bans abortion after 20 weeks.
Most Iowans — 61 percent — believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last fall. Thirty-three percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases, and 6 percent are not sure.
“We have just seen a lot of panic and fear among patients who are worried,” said Mazie Stilwell, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa.
White House officials acknowledged that there was only so much that they could do to protect abortion access without Congress, but many abortion advocates are calling for policies that would protect both medical officials providing abortions and those seeking them.
“What I know feels frustrating for me and many organizers on the ground is we keep having meetings but there’s not any action,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the founder and executive director of the reproductive rights advocacy group We Testify.
No major policy announcements came on Thursday. But Ms. Harris described those pushing for abortion restrictions as “extremist so-called leaders who purport and profess to hail themselves as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.”
Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of the Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to electing African American officials, said such blunt messaging would be imperative for both Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden in the months ahead.
“In the event Kamala Harris continues to be his second in command, it’s important for her now to be out having conversations as much as it is for him to be,” Ms. James said. “This issue is not going away anytime soon.”