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Patty Murray leads Democrats in symbolic vote as abortion rights bill falls short

UPDATED: Wed., May 11, 2022

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Patty Murray speak to the media about a procedural vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act that did not pass Wednesday in Washington, D.C.  (Jacquelyn Martin)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Patty Murray speak to the media about a procedural vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act that did not pass Wednesday in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats on Wednesday failed to pass a bill to enshrine in law the right to terminate a pregnancy, a largely symbolic vote held in response to a leaked document that suggests the Supreme Court is poised to overturn a half-century-old decision that protects abortion access.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, led her party’s messaging ahead of the vote Democrats hope will galvanize voters ahead of November’s midterm election. Addressing her colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday, Murray made the purpose of the vote clear.

“Do you believe that every American should be able to make deeply personal decisions about pregnancy and parenting according to their own beliefs, without the government interfering?” she said. “If your answer is ‘yes,’ then your vote on this bill should be, too.”

“If your answer is ‘no’ – if you think women should have fewer rights, if you think it’s okay for Republican politicians to force someone else to stay pregnant or give birth when they don’t want to – you are going to have to go on the record and let your constituents know that you think your personal opinion matters more than their own medical decisions,” Murray continued. “And you better believe they are not going to forget it.”

The Women’s Health Protection Act, which passed the Democratic-majority House last September, would codify rights that are currently protected by two Supreme Court decisions – 1973’s Roe v. Wade and 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey – that would be overturned by a draft decision obtained and published by Politico on May 2. The high court’s final decision, which may be different, is expected in June.

All 50 GOP senators – including Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho – voted against the bill, joined by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, support abortion rights but objected to the bill after changes they proposed were rejected by Democratic leaders.

Even with the support of Murkowski and Collins, abortion rights proponents could not have cleared the 60-vote hurdle required by the Senate’s filibuster rule. The doomed vote prompted renewed calls from some Democrats to overturn the filibuster, a move that would need only a simple majority, but some moderate Democrats have resisted nixing the rule over concerns that they will need it if they lose the majority. An effort by Senate Republicans to restrict abortion in 2018, when the GOP held the majority, was foiled by the filibuster.

In a statement released after the vote, President Joe Biden called on voters to elect more Democrats to Congress if they want to guarantee abortion rights at the federal level.

“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,” Biden said.

Opponents of the bill, which passed the lower chamber with the support of all but one House Democrat, have criticized it as too sweeping in its prohibitions on state laws restricting abortion. Polls conducted by Gallup since 1975 have shown roughly three-quarters of Americans support abortion remaining legal, but about half think the procedure should have some restrictions. About one in five Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., nodded to those opinion polls in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote.

“Anybody who thinks this isn’t about settled law or about mainstream views in America is wrong,” Cantwell said. “It’s about almost 50 years of settled law. It’s about what mainstream Americans believe are their Constitutional rights.”

Few GOP senators spoke in opposition to the bill before Wednesday’s procedural vote, but Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, released a statement calling the bill “more radical than Roe” and supporting the right of individual states to enact their own abortion laws.

“Roe never settled the issue of abortion, and it has divided us in unimaginable ways,” she said. “I ask, for the next 50 years and beyond in America, how do we want to define the human rights issue of our generation? This is our chance to restore hope and healing for every person – for moms and their children at every stage of life. May it begin with each one of us doing our part to protect and celebrate all life in the greatest experiment in self-governance the world has ever known.”

Abortion would become illegal in 26 states, including Idaho, if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that supports abortion rights. A final decision from the court is expected in June.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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