Bill to protect abortion rights fails to advance in US Senate

Legislation to enshrine the right to an abortion failed to advance in the US Senate on Wednesday, in a vote that tested senators’ stances on the highly polarising issue ahead of the midterm elections.

A critical procedural vote on the Democrat-backed Women’s Health Protection Act, which aimed to protect access to abortion and healthcare providers’ ability to offer the procedure, failed to garner the 60 votes needed, falling 49 to 51.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, broke from his party and joined the 50 Republicans in voting against advancing the bill.

Other votes against the motion came from Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, two moderate Republican senators. This year, the pair introduced separate legislation that would codify abortion rights enshrined in the precedent of Roe vs Wade as an amendment to the Democratic-backed act, which they saw as too broad.

The vote came barely a week after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion revealed that the bench’s conservative majority was considering overturning Roe, the 1973 decision that has guaranteed abortion rights across the US for almost five decades.

The bill’s rejection was widely expected given Democrats lacked the votes to overcome the filibuster, a Senate procedure that effectively requires a supermajority of 60 senators in the 100-member chamber to sign off on most pieces of legislation. Because the Senate is split 50-50, Democrats would have needed to win over at least 10 Republicans.

But the vote was also a means to indicate senators’ individual positions on one of the most divisive issues ahead of midterm elections in November, when control of both houses of Congress will be up for grabs.

“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,” US president Joe Biden said in a statement after the vote. “If they do, Congress can pass this bill in January, and put it on my desk, so I can sign it into law”.

The US Department of Justice has stepped up security for Supreme Court justices, after protests outside their homes following the leak. The US attorney-general on Wednesday directed the US Marshals Service to provide extra support to the court’s officers.

US vice-president Kamala Harris, who presided over the vote, told reporters the Senate had “failed to stand in defence of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body”, adding that a “priority for all who care about this issue . . . should be to elect pro-choice leaders at the local, the state and the federal level”.

After the vote, Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said: “We are going to focus on this issue again and again and again between now and November”.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, had vowed ahead of the vote to block the bill, which he deemed an “extreme proposal [that] goes way, way beyond codifying the status quo. It would roll back many existing laws”.

Schumer called for the vote last week, shortly after Politico published the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion. On Wednesday, he said on Twitter: “The American people will see where every single US Senator stands.”

If Roe is repealed in the court’s final decision, which is expected by June or July, approximately half of US states would be poised to outlaw abortion based on laws that would automatically come into effect.

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