Remarks by the Vice President in a Conversation on Reproductive Rights in St. Paul, Minnesota
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Madam Lieutenant Governor, it is good to be with you. Emily, it is good to be with you -- and all of you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Welcome!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. It's good to be back. (Applause.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Yes! It's good.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Thank you so much, Lieutenant Governor, for those opening remarks. I feel like it really grounded us for this conversation.
Last time I saw you, Madam Vice President, I had my three little kids with me. They are under six. It was bananas. You were so nice.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: They were perfect.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: (Laughter.) And I will tell you that when I told them that I was coming here today, I said, "Guys, I know, I'm sorry I'm missing the activities, but I'm going to see Vice President Kamala Harris." And my two-year-old goes, "Oh, I know her." (Laughter.) So, she sends her regards.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, so great. Exactly.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: But, you know, I think about them. My girls are two and four, and I think about them. They were my thought when the Dobbs decision came out. And I think about the fact that they're growing up with fewer rights than what I had, with fewer rights than their grandmother had.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's right.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: What connects you to bring you into this fight?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, like you, our 23-year-old daughter will have fewer rights than my 81-year-old mother-in-law. And they're both acutely aware of it.
What brings me into this fight is -- I guess, I was, in many ways, just from the start of my life born into it. My mother had two goals in her life: to raise her two daughters and to end breast cancer. So, she was a breast cancer researcher and, you know, one of the few women as a scientist and certainly one of the few women of color. And my mother was always fighting for the right for women to have dignity in the healthcare system.
You know, a frequent word in our household growing up was "mammary gland." (Laughter.) "Hormones." I mean, these things were talked about all the time.
And -- but she really -- she saw so much that was about the disparity in terms of the treatment of women, taking them seriously, giving them dignity through the process. So, from my earliest stages of growth and development, I was aware of this issue and cared about it. And then, you know, through my career as a prosecutor, the vast amount of my work and priority was on crimes against women and children. And -- and so -- and then the Dobbs decision came down.
And I was actually traveling outside of D.C., and as soon as it came down, I actually called my husband. And I just -- I was in an absolute -- you know, we knew it was going to come because of the leaked decision. But it was still unimaginable that it actually happened, you know, that 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.
And, you know, I was talking with a group of labor leaders just before we came on stage. You know, so much about the progress of our nation when we have tracked it has been measured by the expansion of rights, and now we are seeing an intentional restriction of rights. What is that saying about the trajectory and the direction of our country? There's so much at stake with this seemingly one issue that actually is chock full of issues that should concern us. (Applause.)
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: Well, Vice President, we are so excited to have you here. And much like your children, I told my daughter where I was going today. She wrote you a note.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh good.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: So I will give that to you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Please do.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: But more -- more than anything, one of the things that she said to me when you were first elected is she said, "Mom, she looks like me." And it matters. It matters, and especially in this moment that we find ourselves in -- that we have elected officials who know who they are and where they come from, and who also -- you know that you carry -- I know you carry a lot. But you carry so much, and we are so grateful.
And I know that as an elected official, we all take different paths to the offices that we hold. Before I was Lieutenant Governor -- it was not my lifelong dream to be the Lieutenant Governor -- (laughs) -- but I was -- I was the executive director of Children's Defense Fund Minnesota. And in, you know, that role and in my role as a organizer at Wellstone Action, you know, taking this time to -- to really inform the way that we do this work every single day.
And I know that for you, prior to being elected as a United States senator and, of course, as Vice President of the United States, you were a state and local elected official --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's right.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: -- serving as the DA of San Francisco and Attorney General of the great state of California.
Can you talk a little bit about how your -- you know, your work dri- -- how your work really drives you, how that work drove you to really be informed in the way that you are now and the perspective that you have as Vice President? What do you carry from that experience into the work that you do every day?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'll speak specifically to this issue, but it does translate to many issues. As you said, I was a career prosecutor. I -- and I -- when I was a courtroom trial lawyer, a prosecutor, I specialized in, in particular, child sexual assault cases, which are just some of the most horrendous cases you can imagine.
And so, when I look around the country -- and I've been traveling around the country -- and there are these extremist so-called leaders passing laws or proposing laws on this issue with no exception for rape or incest -- so, understand, we're talking about a human being who has endured an act of extreme violence and violation to their body, and so-called leaders would then deprive that individual of the ability to make decisions about their body going forward. It's immoral. It's immoral.
Those so-called leaders, they think they know it all. Right? And they're passing laws, proposing laws -- some of them -- that say, "Well, there will be an exception only if you report it to law enforcement." Come on.
I can tell you from personal experience the vast majority of those cases will not be reported for a lot of reasons that that individual should have the power to make. (Applause.)
I look at it having served as the attorney general. And then, as the attorney general, I was the top lawyer and the top law enforcement officer for a state of 40 million people.
I understand why it is important when we are looking at this issue -- and this is not a political event, but it is a fact that there's an election in 17 days. (Laughter.) It's just a fact. It's a fact. And I know that one of the people on the ballot will be the attorney general of this great state. It matters who represents the people of the state and is responsible for doing justice on behalf of those people when it comes to an issue like this.
Because, you see, where the state has laws that can protect individual rights, we would want and hope as patriotic Americans that the person who has the power to enforce those rights and protect those rights will value and appreciate their responsibility. (Applause.)
And then I look at it in terms of -- you know, back to the local races -- you know, whoever is your county prosecutor. If they are elected, pay attention. Especially for folks, not here, but in states where they're criminalizing healthcare providers, doctors, nurses, healthcare providers are being criminalized with laws that are being proposed and passed that would literally put a healthcare provider in jail on this issue. What is going on?
So, when I -- so I know the power, to your point, of each of these offices, not to mention Congress -- because, again, it is a fact that the President of the United States -- facts are important. (Laughter.) Right? (Applause.)
So, it is a fact that the President of the United States, Joe Biden, has said he will not allow the filibuster to get in the way of passing and signing into law the Women's Health Protection Act. (Applause.) That act, which would codify -- which is a fancy word for "put into law" -- the protections of Roe v. Wade.
But it is also a fact that we need two more United States senators who agree with that, in order for the President to be able to do that. And again, there is an election in 17 days. (Laughter.)
And it bears noting -- because I'll come to this in a moment -- but the President has also said, under those circumstances, he will not let the filibuster get in the way of signing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (Applause.)
So, who is in Congress -- to your point of federal, state, and local -- really matters, and especially when you think about the fact that individuals who serve in the House of Representatives in Washington serve for two years; senators serve for six years. And I have served with both of your senators, and I thank you -- and, please, keep supporting them because they are fighting on the frontlines. But it matters. It matters.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: I'm here for all the facts, Vice President. Thank you. (Laughter.)
So, so many of the issues that you have championed are deeply personal to so many. And I remember when I was first able to meet you in your office, we talked about --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: -- Black and Native maternal health.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. Yes, we did.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: And we have some incredible champions who are right here, who have been willing -- and our elected leaders who have been willing to share deeply personal stories about their own maternal care, their pregnancies, their birth stories. And I am grateful that they are willing to do that.
And so, like, for you, launching the first-ever White House Maternal Health Day of Action -- very exciting -- an issue that is -- you can clap for that, absolutely. Thanks. (Applause.) An issue that is so important to women across the country, especially when we look at the troubling impact on our communities, on the Black and Native mothers in particular.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: And I think that for us, as women of color and as Native women, so much of our experiences -- or even the right to exist healthily and freely -- is politicized.
So, in a sense, when you're showing up for work every day, when you sit down at the decision-making table, you're bringing the real lives of so many of us with you. How have your personal experiences shaped your policy priorities and the work that you've done as Vice President?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I mean, it's everything from my mother to just living, period -- (laughter) -- living and -- and experiencing, firsthand, you know, so many of the points that you are making. And, in particular, an acute awareness of the fact that we can do something about most of the problems we have. I really am driven by that.
But the solutions to some of our biggest problems are not very complicated. It just takes the will to recognize something that -- you know, that exists, and it requires a certain level of interest, maybe even curiosity.
But on this issue, for example, maternal mortality -- and I did work on this in the Senate, and now we've elevated it to the stage of the White House. Maternal mortality in America today: Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth. Native women are twice as likely to die in connection with childbirth. Rural women are one and a half times as likely to die.
And I will tell you, speaking of personal experiences, someone very close to me just lost a member of their family, who -- she died in connection with childbirth, just within the last month, and the baby died also -- in America, today.
And so when we look at the issue, back to the point of solutions, the solutions are to be had. So, for example, on the issue of Black maternal mortality and for Native women, one of the issues that we know is very present -- it's been well studied and documented -- is racial bias.
When she walks into the hospital or the clinic or the doctor's office, she's just not taken as seriously. And it has nothing to do with her socioeconomic level or status or her education. I mean, look, Serena Williams, a well-known story.
And so, there's that. So we embarked -- actually, when I was in the Senate, I had a piece of legislation that was about training medical health professionals to address and deal with their biases.
And one of the things that I loved about it is that I -- I specifically and purposely added that some of the best trainers -- and we're going to put it in there: doulas. Some of the best. Some of the best. Right? (Applause.) They know it. They understand it. And, you know, unfortunately, in the healthcare system hierarchy, I think they are just simply not given the credit they are due based this -- the talent and the service that they render. So, there's that.
But there's also the fact that we have to deal with the unique stressors that certain women experience that also are --can be attributed to what we see in terms of these outcomes.
For example, poverty is trauma inducing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay? (Applause.) So, if we are talking about women who are low income, living in low-income communities, we know that they are exposed to very particular kinds of trauma that have everything to do with the system and the circumstances of their life.
We have to look at it in terms of what are we doing to -- and so this is part of how we've been addressing it, is to address it in terms of really deconstructing the issue, including one of the things that we have achieved, which is to have states extend the Medicaid coverage -- postpartum Medicaid coverage, because it has been 2 months -- can you believe? She just gave birth to a human being, right? -- 2 months to 12 months of postpartum care. (Applause.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Amazing. We love it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. So, these are some of the things.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: You, Madam Vice President, you have been a champion on these issues, as you mentioned, for so long, starting whether it was the DA's office, the state, the Senate, and now as the Vice President.
So, on my podcast, "She Pivots," we interview women who change their life and change their career for a deeply personal reason -- like, not a professional reason but for something that has changed their perspective and then they change their career as a result.
I could argue that anything to the Vice President is a "pivot." (Laughs.) I think that's a pretty good -- (laughter) -- I think it's a pretty good pivot.
But, you know, was there a moment in your life that you thought, "Yes, this is the thing that is going to change my perspective, and I'm going to do it"?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You know, I -- there have probably been a few, but one that comes to mind that I don't often talk about: One of my best friends in high school -- while we were in high school, I learned that she was being molested. And I immediately said to her, "Well, you have to come live with us." And I called my mother, and I was like, "Mommy…" And she was like, "Yeah, she has to come live with us." And so, she did. And I learned what it was and what -- and just, one, the horrendous nature of what was happening in terms of the act itself, but also the effect and -- which is -- you know, there's so many layers to it -- but the powerlessness that also is a part of it, that one is rendered to feel as though they are powerless.
And, in many ways, that was one of the reasons I became a prosecutor, which is -- was born out of a feeling that, you know, you have to right certain wrongs and address certain injustices and protect people who are vulnerable and deserve the autonomy of their bodies and their life.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: And then, at what point did you feel -- did you say, "I like…" -- you know, maybe you did or you did not say, "The effect that I'm having now, the impact I'm having now, I can change that impact"?
I can give you an example that my degree --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: -- is actually in social work.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, I didn't know that.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: And I thought that -- I thought I was going to be a social worker, but when -- but working in the system, I realized it was the lawyers that were actually making the decisions that were impacting my clients, and I felt like I wanted to be part of that decision making, so I went to law school.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: At what point did you think, "I can make a bigger impact on a bigger stage"?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: When I ran for DA. For example, one of the reasons I ran was because the incumbent hadn't -- and there should have been a whole division set up to deal with child sexual assault. There needed to be greater attention being given to the issue of domestic violence.
When I became DA, I set up one of the first environmental justice units of any DA's office in the country. And I became DA of San Francisco back in -- I was elected in 2003, so 2004 I took office.
So, it was kind of the same idea, which is, "Okay, well, I'll do it." (Laughter.) Right? And I mentor a lot of people and -- because when I ran, there had never been a woman -- this is San Francisco, California, with all of the reputation it has -- there had never a woman; there never been a person of color.
When I was elected DA of San Francisco, I was the first Black woman to ever have been elected any DA -- a DA anywhere in the state of California. And so, you can imagine when I decided to run -- and I took on an incumbent -- the number of people that said to me, "Oh, they're not ready for you." "It's not your time." "It's going to be hard work." (Laughter.) Right?
And I didn't listen. And with all of the people that I mentor, I say to them -- I just had a group of students actually yesterday that I was talking with, and I said, "Look, don't you ever hear 'no,' unless…" -- and then they were a little younger, so I said, "Unless it comes from your parents." (Laughter.) But don't ever hear "no," that it can't be done or no one like you did it.
And then, I have this thing -- I say, "You know, look, I eat 'no' for breakfast." (Laughter and applause.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: I feel like -- can we get a little group chat going where, like, anytime I hear that, I'm like, "What do I say? 'No' for breakfast."
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) You know? It's because on so many of these issues, we should not -- and we should teach our children -- to never be burdened by the limitations of other people's minds.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right? (Applause.) Just -- and that's how I think about it.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Well, it's -- people say a lot of interesting things to you when you're the first. And here in Minnesota, Vice President, when we say "interesting," it's a polite way of saying, "I don't like it." (Laughter.) So -- so, there you go.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) Oh, that's funny.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: But I think, you know, in this moment and the words that you just shared with us -- that we "eat 'no' for breakfast" -- I think people are also looking for some hope --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, indeed.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: -- in this time.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Absolutely right.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: It feels heavy, and that we still need to find hope and joy, and continue to do this work.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah, that's right.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: So, can you talk a bit about what -- what gives you hope? But also, what can people do on the national level, as we're thinking about restoring reproductive rights to our nation, so that people receive care no matter -- no matter where they live?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm going to try and unpack that. So, what gives me hope? What gives me hope is our willingness to fight for this country that we love. That gives me hope. And I'm going to tell you why. (Applause.) Thank you.
So, as Vice President, I have now met, either directly in person or by phone, with 100 world leaders -- my staff has been counting -- presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and kings. And the thing about those meetings is that when we walk in those rooms representing the United States of America, we walk in those rooms chin up, shoulders back, with a certain level of authority to talk about the significance of democracy, the importance of rule of law, the importance of -- of human rights, freedom of the press.
But what comes with that is also the fact that -- everyone here will understand and know -- which is we then hold ourselves out to be a role model. The thing about being a role model: People watch what you do to see if it matches what you say.
So, thinking then about the issue of this moment that -- of our discussion, which is what this court just did in Dobbs, I -- my -- one of my great fears is that autocrats around the world can then look at their people and say, "You want to talk about these rights? You want to talk about your United States of America? Look what they just did." And in that way, the impact will be not only for the people of America, but potentially people around the world.
So, there's so much about this issue -- again, all of the layers to this issue, which includes that, and it includes then the fact that this is about, as much as anything, our democracy and the state of our democracy.
And I think that -- I think of democracy as being -- there's, like, two sides to it. There's a duality to it. On the one hand, when the principles upon which our democracy was founded -- freedom, liberty, justice -- when a democracy is intact, it is extraordinarily strong and the power it gives the people.
The duality is that, on the other hand, it is extremely fragile this democracy. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it.
What gives me hope is I know we are prepared to fight for it. That gives me hope. (Applause.) We're not going to let it go. Right?
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: You know, you mentioned what's at stake. There's so much at stake. We've talked about a lot of it here. And a lot of the issues that are coming up -- like, it's not -- it's -- we're seeing them in a lot of the same places.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: So what are you seeing from your perspective?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, among the many things that I like, I love Venn diagrams. (Laughter.) You know, the three circles? I love Venn diagrams. I just -- like, just throw it into a Venn diagram. It'll tell you everything you need to know about any issue, especially where there is -- you know, you're trying to understand the intersection and the connections, right?
And so I asked my team to prepare a Venn diagram for me, and the challenge I gave them is: Tell me from which states we are seeing an attack on women's reproductive health; from which states are we seeing an attack on voting rights; and from which states are we seeing an attack on LGBTQ rights.
Here's my Venn diagram.
(The Vice President holds up a Venn diagram.)
LT. GOVERNOR FLANAGAN: Oh, we have a Venn diagram.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Props. I love it. I love it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I brought props. And -- okay. And so that then tells us, "Whoa, look at what's happening here." Right? See the writing on the wall?
But the other thing, to your point of the last question, what -- you know, the optimism -- where's the optimism in the moment -- what that also tells us is there is an incredible opportunity for coalition building -- right? -- for bringing in all the folks that have been fighting for reproductive health rights and maternal health rights; all the folks who have been fighting for voting rights; all the folks who have been fighting -- who successfully fought for marriage. And now we still have a lot of work to do in terms of trans rights and everything else. But bring everybody together.
And when we think about the history of our nation in terms of the movements that have resulted in progress, one of the greatest ingredients of all of them has always been coalition. Right? And so that's how I think about this in terms of the intersection. But it's pretty profound.
And -- and, again, this is where we have to recognize how much is at stake for everyone in our country. This is not just about a certain, you know, designation of who will be affected. I mean, don't forget, in the Dobbs decision, if you -- I read the decision, including Clarence Thomas's words. Clarence Thomas said the quiet part out loud. He literally said this opens up the next steps, which are to reexamine -- which means question, which means attack, as far as I'm concerned -- the right to contraception and the right to marry the person you love.
So, you know, this -- let's bring everybody together though, because we are picking up. There was a movement that started that culminated in Roe v. Wade. Like you were saying, you know, when you were talking about -- and we can talk about our family members, our mothers, grandmothers. It is now -- it is now our responsibility, all of us, to pick that movement up and to take it to the next step. (Applause.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Actually, the first political thing I ever did was -- I was in college during the March for Women's Lives, and I went down -- I was supposed to go down with my mother and my grandmother.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: And as I was on the way down, we went to go pick up my grandmother and my grand- -- so, we are literally passing it along -- and my grandmother said, "Ugh, I've marched enough. It's your turn."
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. (Laughs.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: And in that moment, I thought, "She really does not like to be inconvenienced." But I didn't realize -- like, I didn't take it quite as heavy as I should have.
And I got to tell you, I'm hopeful from the coalitions that you're talking about, but even I'm tired, you know? Like, I'm picking up from my grandmother, but I'm feeling -- I'm feeling -- feeling a little tired here. So I have to put on my magazine editor hat here and ask you how -- you must be exhausted. Like, how do you keep going? Do you have, like, a routine here? Like, what do you do?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I work out every morning.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: All right.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No matter how much sleep I get, I just have to. It's -- for me, it's mind, body, and spirit. And just -- but it's not -- I mean, just half an hour on the elliptical. Usually, that's when I catch the morning news. And I love to cook when I have the opportunity and the time to cook. I -- it's just so therapeutic. And, you know, you got to work stuff out. You just chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. (Laughter.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Who are you envisioning on that chopping board?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) So, you know, but -- but there's also -- there's a quote that I paraphrase all the time -- and I will do that here -- from Coretta Scott King, who famously said, "The fight for civil rights…" -- which is, again -- is the fight for justice and equality, freedom. "The fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation."
And I think there are two points to that. One is: It is the nature of it all that, whatever gains we make, they will not be permanent.
So, the second point then is: Therefore, understanding it is the nature of it all, do not be overwhelmed, do not be tired, do not throw up your hands when it's time to roll up your sleeves; it's just the nature of it all.
So, knowing that: Good. I'm up for a good fight. You know?
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Yes. Yes. (Applause.)
And I think, now, we're all up for a good fight.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right? (Laughs.)
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Madam Vice President, Madam Lieutenant Governor, this has been, I'd say, my favorite live episode of "She Pivots." Thank you so much.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. It's great to be here.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Thank you for having us. Thank you for having us, Minnesota.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you all.
MS. TISCH SUSSMAN: Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: This is so great.
Kamala Harris, Remarks by the Vice President in a Conversation on Reproductive Rights in St. Paul, Minnesota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/358501