Photography: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
The House of Representatives on Friday passed legislation that would protect access to abortion across the country, the first move by Democrats in Congress to respond to the Supreme Court decision in late June that overturned Roe v Wade.
The vote was largely symbolic – the bills are virtually impossible to overcome Republican opposition in the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance legislation.
Related: US employers’ support for female workers’ abortion care leaves serious gaps
But the move, the first in the post-Roe era, kicks off what Democrats promise will be an all-out, potentially years-long political campaign to restore abortion rights in all 50 states.
Already, Republican-led legislatures in states across broad areas of the South and Midwest are moving quickly to enact restrictions or bans on abortion that were once illegal under precedent set by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision, while Democrat-led states have acted to expand access and protections for women seeking the procedure.
The June decision was expected to lead to bans in nearly half of US states, though legislative processes and delays vary when they go into effect.
US President Joe Biden and party leaders are under increasing pressure from their supporters, who are furious at the court’s decision to invalidate a half-century constitutional right to abortion and frustrated that their party leaders appear to have no plan. of convincing action.
Before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a coalition of women Democrats, all wearing green, a color that has come to symbolize abortion rights, stood on the Capitol steps chanting, “We’re not going back.”
During her comments on the floor, Pelosi warned that Republicans would seek a “barbaric” national ban on abortion if they gain control of the House.
Many Democrats have highlighted the case of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and then had to cross state lines into Indiana for an abortion due to stricter restrictions in her own state as an example of the tragic consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision. court. Many conservatives question the veracity of the story, which was confirmed when a man was indicted for rape.
House Democrats passed two measures on Friday. One would protect the right to travel across state lines for abortion services, a new talking point in the debate as anti-abortion groups press legislation that would bar women from traveling out of state. This passed in the House by 223 votes to 205 votes against.
The measure would also protect healthcare providers who perform abortions on out-of-state patients from legal repercussions.
The other bill, the version of which was passed by the House last year, would establish the right to abortion in federal law, effectively overturning a barrage of state restrictions and bans and giving a national legislative basis to a federal right that had been dictated by the court.
The measure would guarantee access to abortion until fetal viability, the point at which a human fetus is widely considered capable of surviving outside the womb, around 24 weeks, or beyond that point if the mother’s health or life is at risk. It passed by 219 votes yes to 210 votes against.
It would also ban what its authors say are medically unnecessary restrictions designed to restrict access to abortion under the guise of protecting women’s health.
“You shouldn’t have more rights if you get pregnant in California than if you get pregnant in Texas,” said Congresswoman Judy Chu, a California Democrat and author of the Women’s Health Protection Act.
Friday’s action was also an attempt to put Republicans on the record on an issue that Democrats believe will galvanize their ranks in the November election.
Only a small fraction of Americans believe abortion should be banned, and consistent majorities oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to overthrow Roe.
Republicans uniformly opposed the bills.
Several Republican lawmakers have adopted a nationwide abortion ban, promising a flurry of new federal restrictions if they gain control of Congress in the midterm elections.
There are two Republican senators in the House who support abortion rights, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. They do not support the House bill codifying Roe, saying it goes beyond Supreme Court precedent. They have introduced alternative legislation, but even so, they are unlikely to convince enough Republican senators to surpass the 60-vote threshold.
Asked whether Democrats should work with these Republican senators on a compromise plan, Pelosi told reporters: “We are not going to negotiate a woman’s right to choose.”
Joe Biden faced widespread criticism from Democrats disappointed with his response to Roe’s ouster, which they called late and overly cautious. Since then, the president has taken a more aggressive tone on the matter and directed his administration to take additional steps to protect access.
But ultimately, he said the only way to “truly” protect abortion rights was for Congress to act, and to do that voters needed to elect at least two more Democratic senators in November.
“We must make sure the American people remember in November,” Pelosi said, “because with two more Democratic senators we will be able to clear the obstruction when it comes to women’s right to choose and make reproductive freedom the law of the land. .”