US House votes to restore abortion rights after end of Roe

Democratic-backed bills to restore abortion and defend out-of-state travel have little chance of passing in US Senate.

Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats stand outside Congress during a news conference on abortion rights
US House speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, says the Women's Health Protection Act aims to 'once again make the central protections of Roe v Wade the law of the land' [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The US House of Representatives has voted to restore abortion rights across the country, after the nation’s highest court last month overturned its landmark Roe v Wade decision, setting off protests and calls for action from lawmakers.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the bill with 219 votes in favour and 210 against on Friday afternoon, but it has little chance of becoming law because it lacks the necessary support in the evenly divided Senate.

The effort is the latest example of the post-Roe reality in the United States, where legislators, lawyers, civil rights groups and many others have weighed in on the debate over abortion access and reproductive healthcare.

“A woman’s health decisions are her own to make, not to be dictated by far-right politicians,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted ahead of Friday’s vote.

She hailed the bill as “strong, focused legislation to once again make the central protections of Roe v. Wade the law of the land” and said House Democrats “will continue fighting ferociously to defend Americans’ fundamental freedoms”.

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutionally protected right to abortion, has been welcomed by conservatives but spurred anger among human rights advocates who said it will disproportionately affect Black and low-income people.

Twenty-six US states are likely or certain to ban abortion after the fall of Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Already, several Republican-controlled states have moved to severely restrict or ban abortion, while Democratic state leaders have sought to shore up protections, including for out-of-state pregnant patients travelling for abortion services.

The House on Friday also passed a separate bill to prohibit punishment for a woman or child who decides to travel to another state to get an abortion.

That echoed an executive order signed by US President Joe Biden last week that directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect and expand access to abortion services, including by defending out-of-state travel and federally approved medication.

Republicans slammed both pieces of Democratic-backed legislation on Friday, praising the Supreme Court’s decision and warning that the bills would go further than Roe ever did when it comes to legalising abortion.

Urging her colleagues to vote “no”, Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Democratic legislation “has nothing to do with protecting the health of women. It has everything to do with forcing an extreme agenda on the American people.”

The first bill passed on Friday, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), would expand on the protections Roe had previously provided by banning what supporters say are medically unnecessary restrictions that block access to safe and accessible abortions.

It would prevent abortion bans earlier than 24 weeks, the point of fetus viability, and allows exceptions for abortions after fetal viability when a provider determines the life or health of the pregnant patient is at risk.

The Democrats’ proposal would also prevent states from requiring providers to share “medically inaccurate” information, or from requiring additional tests or waiting periods, often aimed at dissuading a patient from having an abortion.

The second bill, which would prohibit punishment for travelling out of state, would also specify that doctors cannot be punished for providing reproductive care outside their home state.

Reproductive health groups welcomed the House votes, with the Guttmacher Institute saying the WHPA was “a key step toward ensuring that a person’s income or zip code never determines their access to essential health care”.

“[The US Supreme Court’s] ruling to overturn #Roe trampled on our right to make decisions about our lives and futures. Today we are one step closer to ensuring equal access to abortion, everywhere,” the Center for Reproductive Rights advocacy group also tweeted.

Since the court’s decision last month, some progressive activists have accused the Biden administration and leaders in his Democratic Party of not doing enough to counter the barrage of anti-abortion rights measures being proposed.

Biden, who denounced the court’s ruling as “extreme”, this week issued guidance to medical providers that they must offer abortion if the life of the pregnant person is at risk. The state of Texas filed a lawsuit against that directive on Thursday.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press