The House of Representatives on Friday took its first-ever vote to protect the abortion rights enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, acting just weeks after the Supreme Court refused to block a Texas law that is the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation.
But the legislation, the Women’s Health Protection Act, is expected to fail in the Senate, even if it succeeds in amplifying partisan differences in the latest round of the culture wars.
“It will hopefully serve as a way to get pro-choice Democrats out to vote the next time around,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked with the late Senator Ted Kennedy and former Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
The vote — which passed the House largely along partisan lines, 218-211 — served in part as Democrats’ answer to conservative attacks on Roe, satisfying reproductive rights organizations and liberal activists. Analysts also say it is political positioning for a party whose agenda is increasingly on the ropes. Democrats seem to be looking to abortion rights as a rallying cry for their base heading into the 2022 midterm elections, as President Biden faces difficulty shepherding the party’s agenda and trips over a series of mishaps.
“It used to be the Republicans were the ones pushing the social issues — often abortion — to turn out their base,” said Jon McHenry, a GOP pollster and strategist. “I think that’s part of the impetus with the Democrats saying, ‘OK, we think we have an advantage on the social issue here.’ And that remains to be seen.”
The House bill aims to codify into law the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision to protect it from reversal by today’s conservative Supreme Court and from states’ efforts to impose restrictions on it.
But the bill also pushes further in some ways and past some politicians’ comfort zone. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she would oppose the bill because it would undo conscience exceptions allowing health professionals to opt out of performing abortions, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday.
Opponents derided the bill, beginning with its name, which they called deceptive. The antiabortion group March for Life said in a statement that the bill is “beyond extreme,” and would invalidate all existing and future state laws limiting abortion, and force health care workers to participate in abortions and taxpayers to fund them.
“If Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and their allies get their way, the United States will soon be indistinguishable from North Korea and China on the human rights issue of abortion,” March for Life president Jeanne Mancini said in a statement.
But the bill represented Democrats’ attempt to beat back abortion limits proliferating in red states, and guard against fears that the nation’s highest court will allow those laws to stand. The Supreme Court, which allowed Texas’s new law to go into effect early this month, is expected in December to hear oral arguments over the constitutionality of a Mississippi case that aims to ban abortion at 15 weeks and directly challenges Roe v. Wade.
“The House has stepped in where the courts have failed us,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which championed the bill, said in a statement. It was, she noted, the first time Congress has ever advanced legislation establishing the right to an abortion.
Democrats have been accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women” since 2012, and concerns about reproductive rights drove crowds to the Women’s Marches that followed Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration and to the polls in the 2018 midterms.
“Make no mistake: This is the break-glass moment for women’s rights in America,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, which plans a march for reproductive rights in cities across the country again next Saturday.
While it’s clear the Democrats are hoping that well-educated suburban women will rally to vote their way again, it’s not clear how much of a factor this will be in a post-Trump midterm, McHenry said.
“Whether that ultimately has a greater effect than Biden’s record on issues leading up to the midterms is very much an open question,” he said.
Nonetheless, the issue stirred a fiery debate on the House floor on Friday morning. After Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Boston and a lead sponsor of the bill, called abortion care a “fundamental human right,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers countered with a Bible passage. “Open up, oh heavens, and pour out your righteousness,” the Washington Republican began.
The debate was fueled by heady language on the Texas law, which not only outlaws abortion after about six weeks but also empowers citizens to enforce the law by bringing suit against anyone who helps a woman get an abortion after that.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who is Black, likened her state’s new law to allowing bounty hunters to capture escaped enslaved people. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the Texas law as creating a “vigilante bounty system” and noted how early it would criminalize abortion. Since pregnancy is calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period, a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy leaves just two weeks for a woman to realize she is pregnant and seek out an abortion.
“Sometimes I wonder if they don’t need a lesson in the birds and the bees,” Pelosi said.
Women’s ranks have been increasing in Congress, and on Friday women were front and center steering the debate by sharing their personal experiences with pregnancy. Representative Beth Van Duyne, a Texas Republican, spoke of her miscarriage as she emphasized the emotional weight of a pregnancy.
“Losing a child changed who I was,” she said, speaking against the bill, “and we can’t pretend that this law doesn’t have lifelong consequences.”
Representatives Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, said that one out of four women have abortions. “And I am one of them,” she declared. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, blasted conservatives for their perspective.
“You stand there preaching birth but not life,” said Speier. “This is my body. This is my life. This is my freedom.”