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12 May, 2022 13:57

US Senate votes on abortion bill

The Democrats’ slim majority wasn’t enough to turn abortion access into law
US Senate votes on abortion bill

The US Senate on Wednesday voted against a bill that would have legalized near-unrestricted abortion access. The bill was brought to a vote by Democrats after a leaked draft opinion suggested that the US Supreme Court was about to strike down Roe v. Wade, a ruling that has guaranteed abortion access since 1973.

The Senate voted 51-49 against the Women's Health Protection Act, with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin the only Democrat to side with his Republican colleagues in opposing the bill. Although the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote, Democrats still would have needed 60 votes to pass the bill, thanks to the Senate’s filibuster rule.

The bill, which has existed since last year, was brought to a vote by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) a week after a Supreme Court staffer leaked a draft opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito suggesting that the court would imminently strike down Roe v. Wade. This 1973 ruling has kept most abortions legal in the US for nearly five decades, yet rested on an “egregiously wrong” and “exceptionally weak” reading of the Constitution, Alito argued.

Following the vote, President Joe Biden accused Republicans of standing “in the way of Americans’ rights to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies,” and vowed to get the bill passed next year should Democrats expand their majority in Congress in November’s midterm elections.

While Democrats and liberal media outlets described the bill as codifying the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade into law, Manchin said that the bill he voted against “is not Roe v. Wade codification, it is an expansion. It expands abortion."

Roe v. Wade guarantees the right to an abortion under the Constitution’s right to privacy, stating that pregnant women can avail themselves of the procedure without “excessive government restriction.” However, states can still pass laws restricting abortion to either the first or second trimesters of pregnancy, and can require those seeking abortion to first receive counselling or go through waiting periods before the procedure.

The Women's Health Protection Act would strike down all laws preventing abortion before the point where a fetus can survive outside the womb, and would permit abortion after this point if a “health care provider” – a term that includes nurses and assistants – deems the woman’s “health” in danger.

The term “health” is not defined in the bill, and conservatives have expressed concern that this clause could be misused to provide abortion right up to the moment of birth.

Furthermore, the bill instructs courts to “liberally construe” all of its definitions, and removes so-called “conscience protections” that currently allow religious doctors and hospitals to refuse to carry out abortions.

According to polling by Pew Research, while 61% of Americans think terminating pregnancy should be legal in all or most cases, only 22% support abortion near the end of the second trimester.

Nevertheless, Schumer has vowed to make abortion a key issue in the runup to the midterms. "We are going to continue to highlight this issue relentlessly and strongly,” he said after Wednesday's vote. “We are going to keep fighting and keep fighting and keep fighting, until we win.”