House passes bill to protect abortion rights in response to restrictive Texas law

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a news conference about the House vote on H.R. 3755, the “Women’s Health Protection Act” legislation to “establish a federally protected right to abortion access” at the Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

House Democrats on Friday approved wide-ranging legislation to protect abortion rights, a swift but mostly symbolic response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to block a Texas law banning most abortions.

The bill, which passed 218-211, is principally a show of solidarity given that the bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, will face steep opposition from Senate Republicans and is not expected to advance through the chamber.

Democrats believe the bill would guarantee the right to abortion through federal law and cement the decision of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to the procedure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., worked quickly to schedule action on the bill after the high court earlier this month refused to block a controversial Texas law that prohibits abortions after roughly six weeks, before most realize they are pregnant.

Specifically, the Texas law says doctors may not perform abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, activity that usually begins at around six weeks of gestation. That law went into effect on Sept. 1.

The Texas law does not make exceptions for pregnancies the result of rape or incest, and is unprecedented in deputizing private citizens to sue anyone who performs the procedure or “aids and abets” it.

Pelosi offered comments prior to the bill’s passage Friday morning and offered a pointed rebuke to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision earlier this month. The justices who voted not to block the law focused on procedural questions and stressed that they have yet to judge the constitutionality of the law.

“This is about freedom. About freedom of women to have choice about the size and timing of their families, not the business of people on the [Supreme] Court or members of Congress,” the House speaker said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington and chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said from the House floor that she has received an abortion and urged fellow lawmakers not to criminalize the procedure.

“One in four women across America have had an abortion. I am one of them,” she said prior to the bill’s passage. “Terminating my pregnancy, Madam Speaker, was not an easy choice for me. But it was my choice. It is time to preserve that for all people.”

Despite its long odds in the Senate, the House-approved bill may provide Democrats with fuel in the 2022 midterms and a strong talking point for voters who view the Supreme Court’s recent decision as eroding rights many believed to be settled law.

Republicans, including Rep. Julia Letlow of Louisiana, protested the bill ahead of the House vote and argued that it goes beyond the Roe decision.

Specifically, members of the GOP say the bill strips states of their ability to regulation abortion. They also argue that the measure would prevent states from introducing measures to make abortions safer and lead to many more procedures in the late stages of pregnancy.

“As a woman, and most importantly, a mother of two children, I feel uniquely qualified to speak about this,” Letlow said from the House floor.

“The legislation before us is perhaps the most extreme abortion measure that Congress has ever considered,” she added. “It will overturn countless protections for the unborn that states have already put into place.”

The Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats, may not take up the bill since it remains unclear whether a majority of the chamber supports it.

Two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, have not joined the rest of their colleagues in cosponsoring the Senate’s version of the bill and are expected to oppose it. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has supported abortion rights in the past, has reportedly said she will not support the bill in its current form.

Even if Democrats managed to scrap together a majority of the Senate, it is nearly certain that Republicans would filibuster the bill and prevent it from advancing with less than 60 votes.

A group of abortion providers and advocates asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to quickly review their challenge to the Texas law.

Rather than try again to temporarily block the Texas law, Thursday’s petition asked the Supreme Court to grant a request to review their case. Abortion rights advocates requested the high court to take up the case quickly, rather than wait for final judgment in an appeals court.

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