Key vote to protect access to abortion fails in the Senate

A key vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a Democrat-led bill aimed at preserving access to abortion in the US, failed in the Senate on Wednesday.

The final tally was 49 to 51 with moderate Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, joining with Republicans to vote against the measure and stop it from advancing.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters after a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty)

The bill’s failure to advance was expected amid GOP resistance. But the outcome of the vote nevertheless underscores how Democrats are severely limited in what they can achieve with their narrow Senate majority.

At the same time, the party faces enormous pressure to take action on abortion rights amid fears that Roe v Wade will soon be struck down.

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‘I exist because my mom had an abortion’

Holding the vote provided an opportunity for Democrats to spotlight the issue and criticise Republican resistance to passage of the legislation.

But the vote also highlighted a lack of unity over the contentious issue among Democrats.

A demonstrator holds a “Protect Roe v. Wade” sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court following oral arguments in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. The Supreme Court’s conservatives suggested they are poised to curb abortion rights and uphold Mississippi’s ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, as the court tackled its most consequential reproductive-rights case in a generation. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)
Manchin, who represents the red state of West Virginia and has previously described himself as “pro-life and proud of it,” voted with Republicans in opposition to the bill when it came before the Senate in February.

Manchin told CNN ahead of Wednesday’s vote he would be a “no” on the Democratic bill, arguing it’s too broad. He indicated he would support a codification of Roe v Wade, but said this bill goes too far.

The Senate took up a version of the Women’s Health Protection Act sponsored by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The bill would codify the right to access abortion into federal law and guarantee the right of health care providers to perform abortion services. A House-passed version of the bill failed to advance in the Senate earlier this year amid GOP opposition.

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court, with Roe v. Wade facing its strongest threat in decades
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court, with Roe v. Wade facing its strongest threat in decades (AP)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the vote one of the “most important” senators will take, “not only this session, but in this century.”

“This is not an abstract exercise, it’s as real and as urgent as it gets,” Schumer said at a news conference on Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Democrats for forcing the vote, arguing that “it would attack Americans’ conscience rights and religious freedoms.”

“It would overturn modest and overwhelmingly popular safeguards like waiting periods, informed consent laws and possibly even parental notification,” McConnell said of Democrats’ bill in remarks on the Senate floor on Monday.

Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, rare Republican abortion-rights supporters, have introduced their own legislation to codify the rights established by Roe into federal law.

Both voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act in February. Collins criticised the Democratic bill in a statement on Wednesday ahead of the vote.

The Maine Republican said the bill “explicitly invalidates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in connection with abortion and supersedes other longstanding, bipartisan conscience laws”.

Asked at a news conference on Friday why he won’t instead bring the Collins and Murkowski bill to the floor, which could receive bipartisan support, Schumer said: “We are not looking to compromise something as vital as this.”

Earlier this week, more than a dozen abortion rights groups wrote a letter strongly opposing Murkowski and Collins’ bill, arguing it “would not protect the right to abortion if Roe v. Wade is overruled.”

Democrats have sounded the alarm and reacted with outrage in response to a recently leaked Supreme Court draft opinion revealing plans to strike down Roe v Wade after roughly five decades.

Republicans, despite many opposing abortion rights, have focused their response instead on the bombshell leak of the Supreme Court opinion, arguing that the leak itself represents a significant threat to judicial independence and freedom from outside interference.

While the Senate vote on Wednesday had been expected to fail, many Democrats still argued that the political landscape has shifted now that it has become evident Roe v Wade may soon be struck down and that it is imperative to put lawmakers on the record over the issue.

“I do think that the vote is necessary,” Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, said.

“There has been time since (the bill) failed in the Senate the last time for people to have more conversations, more outreach. And then when this news of the leak, the draft opinion, when that became public, for a lot of work, a lot of conversations, a lot of advocacy groups reaching out, a lot more information stirring in people’s communities to open up a conversation where people could have a mind change.”

Prior to the vote starting, about two dozen House progressive members came over from the House side and were chanting “my body, my decision” near Schumer’s office. The chants were audible from in the chamber.

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