House Democrats voted on Friday to establish a federal right to abortion, moving swiftly to advance the measure after the supreme court declined to stop a Texas law effectively outlawing the procedure and as they await a separate ruling next year that could further erode access.
The legislation, named the Women’s Health and Protection Act, is part of the party’s strategy to push back against the rush of state laws restricting abortions and to show their determination to defend reproductive rights, an issue they believe will resonate ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Joe Biden has urged support for the measure, but Republican opposition in the Senate all but ensures the bill will not reach his desk.
With the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, presiding over the vote, the House passed the measure 218-211. All Republicans and one Democrat, congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas, opposed the bill, which is unlikely to advance in the Senate.
The near-total party line vote reflects a decades-long shift in the Democratic party’s embrace of reproductive issues. While Democratic leaders were once reluctant to bring such measures to the floor out of concern for the more socially conservative members of their caucus, nearly every congressional Democrat supports abortion rights and those who don’t, like Cuellar, have faced increasingly difficult primary challenges.
The debate ahead of the vote was passionate and personal, as was expected for what has become one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. Some Democrats recalled the “dark ages” before Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 supreme court decision that established a legal right to abortion nationwide.
“Roe v Wade was not the beginning of women having abortions,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois. “It was the end of women dying from abortions.”
Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat of Texas, waved a wire coat hanger as a symbol of the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – methods women would use to attempt an abortion before it was legalized.
Republicans rose to denounce the bill, arguing that it would allow “abortion on demand” at every stage of pregnancy, even until birth.
The measure “isn’t about freedom for women,” said Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri. “It’s about death for babies.”
The legislation would codify abortion rights into federal law and prohibit states from imposing “medically unnecessary” restrictions that make it difficult to perform and access. It would allow an abortion after viability – the point at which a healthy fetus can survive outside the womb, typically between 21 and 24 weeks – only in cases where the mother’s health is at risk.
Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, the lead author of the bill, has introduced versions of this legislation in previous cycles. But Democrats moved to vote on it for the first time after the supreme court refused to intervene to block a Texas law that prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, roughly the sixth week of pregnancy – before many women even know they’re pregnant. The court did not address the constitutionality of the law, but many advocates on both sides of the abortion debate viewed the decision as a potential sign of how it might rule in a coming challenge to Roe.
The Texas law makes no exemptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. It also effectively deputizes ordinary citizens regardless of where they live to enforce the law, allowing them to collect $10,000 for successfully bring a civil suit against anyone found to “aid or abet” an illegal abortion.
The Biden administration sued Texas, arguing that the law is clearly unconstitutional. At least two lawsuits have been filed – one by a man in Arkansas and another by a man in Illinois – against a doctor in Texas who published an op-ed claiming to have performed an abortion in violation of the new law.
Democrats warned of copycat laws popping up in Republican-controlled legislatures across the country. But they are also bracing for a supreme court decision next year, when it will rule on a Mississippi law that seeks to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy – a direct challenge to Roe.
There is widespread fear among proponents of reproductive rights that the current court, composed of six conservative justices, three of whom Donald Trump appointed to be “pro-life”, could further roll back or entirely dismantle Roe.
“We cannot rely on Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh to confirm our rights for us,” Chu said at a press conference on Friday morning. “Congress must protect the rights of women and pregnant people in every zip code.”
Formidable Republican opposition awaits in the evenly-divided Senate, where it remains unclear if the bill could win the support of all 50 Democrats in the chamber. Two members of the caucus who oppose abortion rights, senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have not co-sponsored the bill.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has been reluctant to bring legislation to the floor that divides his chamber, and even if Democrats were unified behind a measure it is unlikely to attract the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. One of only a few remaining pro-abortion Republicans, Senator Susan Collins of Maine told the LA Times she opposes th bill and is working with other senators to craft a bill that would “truly would codify Roe.”
Public opinion polls have consistently found strong support for keeping abortion legal in all or some circumstances.
The Biden administration said it “strongly supports” passage of this bill in light of “Texas’ unprecedented attack” on abortion access.
“Our daughters and granddaughters deserve the same rights that their mothers and grandmothers fought for and won—and that a clear majority of the American people support,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy. “We will not allow this country to go backwards on women’s equality.”