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House passes bills to codify abortion rights and ensure access

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leads fellow Democratic congresswomen to highlight their upcoming vote on the Women's Health Protection Act and the Ensuring Women's Right to Reproductive Freedom Act, especially concerning access to abortion, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 15. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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The House on Friday passed legislation that would protect access to reproductive health care, including the ability to travel across state lines for an abortion, as part of Democrats’ efforts to minimize the consequences of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last month.

One bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, would enshrine the protections of Roe v. Wade into law. The House already passed the bill last year, but it did not advance in a Senate vote in May. The House passed the bill, 219-210, prompting applause from Democrats in the chamber. All Republicans and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) voted against the measure.

Another bill, the Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act, would reaffirm the right for someone seeking an abortion to travel freely across state lines. The House passed that measure, 223-205, with three Republicans — Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) — joining all Democrats in backing the bill.

Despite passage in the Democratic-led House, the bills are almost certain to fail in the Senate, where they would require 60 votes or the suspension of filibuster rules and a simple majority. Both are unlikely in the face of Republican opposition.

The debate in the House underscored the deep divide between the two parties, with Democrats warning that Republicans will impose further restrictions on women, including a national abortion ban, and Republicans insisting that they are protectors of “unborn children.”

Neither the courts nor states nor politicians should have the say in women’s ability to make their own decisions about their health, their well-being and their future that rests with their loved ones, their doctor and their God,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “If we claim to love freedom, to be a free and just society, we must ensure that this basic human right is finally enshrined into law.”

As further proof of their opposition to the measure, Republicans falsely renamed the legislation in their whip notice as the “Abortions on Demand until Birth Act” — which is a misrepresentation of the bill — and repeated that claim on the House floor.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) called abortion “the human rights issue” of a generation.

“Do not close your ears. Do not close your eyes. Do not close your hearts, dehumanizing a life,” she said as the House debated the measure. “Let’s come together. Let’s protect the human rights of the unborn. We cannot deny life to the most disadvantaged and marginalized among us.”

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.). argued that the most marginalized would be affected if abortion rights are obliterated.

“My middle name is Blunt, so let me be clear about who’s going to be hit the hardest,” she said. “Poor women, young women, women in rural areas and women of color. People who may not have the ability to travel hundreds of miles to get the care they need.”

Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Tex.), who represents a district that narrowly flipped Republican with her recent special election win, said the bill does not align with the values of voters in her district.

“Protecting the voiceless ought to be a top priority in this House and in every corner of this land,” she said. “As a mother of four beautiful, strong children, I find it hard to believe there are those who think that defending life is optional — even to the last month of pregnancy.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) directly addressed Republicans during the debate, warning that freedoms conservatives hold dear could be erased next.

“You’re trying to take away people’s right to travel,” she said. “What in the world is this? Is this America?”

“They come for me today; they’re coming for you tomorrow,” the lawmaker added.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) pushed back on a belief among religious conservatives about the origin of life while expressing her support for the legislation.

“If you believe life begins at conception, don’t get an abortion,” she said Friday. “But that’s your belief. It’s not science, and others do not share it.”

“I don’t think anyone over here would ever force someone with your beliefs to get an abortion,” the mother of two added. “But you are forcing your beliefs on others, and that is wrong.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) argued that passing the bill expeditiously is necessary given the long-term goals of Republican lawmakers to prohibit the procedure nationwide — and the immediate impact that conservative judges have had on abortion rights.

“The court’s ideological decision ignored nearly 50 years of precedent and is the culmination of decades of unrelenting efforts by Republican politicians to control women and their bodies,” he said Friday. “Republicans have made it clear. This is just the beginning, pushing a national abortion ban.”

In May, Senate Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) blocked the Women’s Health Protection Act, and on Thursday, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) blocked the Senate version of a bill that would have protected travel across state lines for those seeking an abortion, accusing Democrats of attempting “to inflame, to raise the what ifs.”

Lankford’s comments came amid intense focus on the case of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and had to travel to Indiana to undergo an abortion because the procedures are now banned in Ohio after six weeks.

Record shows Indiana doctor fulfilled duty to report 10-year-old’s abortion

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, pushed back at Lankford, saying “radical, anti-choice policymakers” at the state level were already threatening to criminalize interstate travel for abortions — and that even the prospect of that legislation was having a chilling effect on abortion providers in states where the procedure remains legal.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that some states are going to continue to move forward with these kinds of legislation,” Cortez Masto said. “This is a form of gaslighting, to keep insisting that American women will be able to get care when we know that anti-choice legislators and groups are working to stop them from doing so. What legislators are doing across the country to restrict women from traveling is just blatantly unconstitutional.”

Despite the bills’ doomed futures, Democrats have been under pressure from their base to show that they are doing everything possible to preserve abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. Abortion rights activists have already accused the White House of not taking enough action — particularly since a draft of the Supreme Court decision was leaked in early May.

However, Pelosi defended the Biden administration’s response Thursday.

“I have no question about this administration’s support for a woman’s right to choose and to take the necessary actions to ensure that,” Pelosi told reporters. “This is something that is core to who we are. It’s about freedom. It’s about health care. It’s about respect for women. And that is something that the president is wedded to.”

White House officials have reportedly been debating internally about whether to declare abortion access a public health emergency. President Biden has said he would support altering the filibuster rules in the Senate to preserve abortion rights, while pushing abortion rights voters to make their feelings known at the ballot box, starting in November’s midterm elections.

Pelosi echoed that sentiment Thursday, suggesting that only by electing more Democratic senators to get around the filibuster would Congress be able to pass legislation that “truly impacts a woman’s right to choose” — not just what she called “halfway” measures.

“We’re not going to negotiate a woman’s right to choose,” Pelosi said. “What are you going to negotiate? Whether a woman can have contraception? Is that a cause for negotiation? Whether people can have birth control? Yes or no? A little bit here. A little bit there. No.”

Ahead of the House votes Friday, Pelosi pledged that her party would continue “ferociously defending freedom for women” during an event on the Capitol Steps in which dozens of lawmakers wore green, which has become the color of the abortion rights movement.

Pelosi said Democrats are sending a message of “hands off our reproductive health.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that next week the House will vote on a bill to ensure access to contraception.

“American women deserve to be able to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives, including whether to become pregnant and have children,” Hoyer said in a statement.

John Wagner contributed to this report.

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