US Senate vote blocks legislation to codify abortion rights

Bill would have created federal protections for women seeking to terminate pregnancies

Democratic women members of the US House of Representatives gather outside of the Senate chamber in Washington to protest and advocate abortion rights. Reuters
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Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to enshrine abortion rights in federal law in a vote that came before an expected Supreme Court decision to end those protections.

All Republicans and one Democrat — Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted to keep legislation ensuring nationwide access to abortions from reaching the Senate floor. The 49-51 vote was well below the 60 votes needed.

"Sadly, the Senate failed to stand in defence of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body," Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters after overseeing the vote as president of the Senate.

"Let's be clear, the majority of the American people believe in defending a woman's right, her choice to decide what happens to her own body. And this vote clearly suggests that the Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue," Ms Harris said.

Democrats are hoping the vote on the “Women's Health Protection Act” will bolster their chances of holding or even picking up seats in the November 8 midterm elections.

“The vote to protect abortion rights will shine like a floodlight on every member of this chamber,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden signaled out Senate Republicans for the failure of the bill.

"Republicans in Congress — not one of whom voted for this bill — have chosen to stand in the way of Americans’ rights to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, families and lives," he said in a statement.

Joe Manchin was the sole Democrat to vote against the legislation, joining all Republicans with his opposition vote.

Even if Mr Manchin had supported the bill, it was not expected to succeed in the deeply divided Senate as all Republicans were opposed to it.

Meanwhile, closed-door talks continued over a possible compromise abortion-rights bill, although it was unknown whether Democratic and Republican negotiators would be able to lure the 60 votes needed for any such measure.

America's decades-old battle over abortion rights exploded anew last week when the Supreme Court confirmed the authenticity of a draft opinion that signalled it would soon overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised abortion nationwide.

A Reuters-Ispos poll last week found 63 per cent of respondents, including 78 per cent of Democrats and 49 per cent of Republicans, would be more likely to back candidates in November's elections who support abortion rights.

"To protect the right to choose, voters need to elect more pro-choice senators this November, and return a pro-choice majority to the House," Mr Biden said.

"If they do, Congress can pass this bill in January, and put it on my desk, so I can sign it into law."

At least 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion if the top court strikes down Roe, said the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates sexual and reproductive health rights.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told USA Today last week it was “possible” that a Republican-controlled Senate could seek legislation restricting abortion nationwide in a post-Roe v Wade world.

Amid widespread media coverage of that statement, Mr McConnell noted during a Tuesday press conference that neither Democrats nor Republicans would be likely to secure the 60 votes needed to move abortion legislation through the Senate.

“This issue will be dealt with at the state level,” Mr McConnell said.

Last September, the House of Representatives voted 218-211 to pass an abortion rights bill nearly identical to the Senate bill.

Some Democrats believe that a move to overturn Roe could help them in November by energising their voters and turning more women to their side.

"We will continue to defend women’s constitutional rights to make private reproductive choices as recognized in Roe v Wade nearly half a century ago, and my Administration will continue to explore the measures and tools at our disposal to do just that," Mr Biden said.

Reuters contributed reporting

Updated: May 12, 2022, 6:37 AM