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Houe Passes WHPA

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the Women's Health Protection Act on September 24, 2021. (Photo: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi/Twitter)

Senate Filibuster Final Obstacle After House Dems Pass 'Historic' Abortion Rights Bill

"This is a moment of crisis," said one activist. "We cannot allow the filibuster, or anything else, to stand in the way of safeguarding our fundamental freedoms."

Jessica Corbett

With Roe v. Wade at risk and abortion access under assault by GOP state lawmakers, nearly all Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives came together Friday to pass federal legislation that would ensure the right to abortion, free from medically unnecessary restrictions, nationwide.

"Now the Senate must act or the current crisis on abortion access in Texas could reverberate across large swaths of the nation."
—Nancy Northup, CRR

The House approved the Women's Health Protection Act (WHPA) in a 218-211 vote mostly along party lines. One Democrat and two Republicans did not vote, and only Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)—who faces a pro-choice primary challenger for 2022—joined with the rest of the GOP in opposing it.

Despite support from the White House, WHPA's (H.R. 3755/S. 1975) future is uncertain due to an evenly divided Senate and the refusal by some right-wing Democrats to agree to abolishing the filibuster in order to advance the party and President Joe Biden's priorities—but reproductive freedom advocates still celebrated the House vote and highlighted the urgent need for a law codifying Roe.

"The House has stepped in where the courts have failed us," declared Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). "This historic vote is the first time legislation has advanced in Congress to establish a right to abortion. Now the Senate must act or the current crisis on abortion access in Texas could reverberate across large swaths of the nation."

The vote came a day after CRR and other legal partners, representing Texas healthcare providers and reproductive rights supporters, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider blocking the state's recently enacted Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion after six weeks, without exceptions for rape or incest, and incentivizes anti-choice vigilantes to enforce the law by offering a $10,000 "bounty."

Though the high court's right-wing majority let S.B. 8 take effect earlier this month, justices did not weigh its constitutionality. Since then, Republican lawmakers in other states have started working on copycat bills. Those measures, along with an upcoming Supreme Court case, have raised concerns about the future of Roe and elevated demands for congressional action.

"Given the unprecedented level of attacks on the constitutional right to an abortion in Texas and across the country, it is imperative that the federal government step in. Today, the U.S. House of Representatives did its part," said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA).

McGill Johnson thanked the lower chamber's reproductive healthcare champions for "advocating for safe, legal abortion" and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for bringing it to the floor, and called on the Senate to "follow suit immediately pass this critical legislation."

Ahead of the vote, Pelosi—along with other backers of the bill, including lead sponsor Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.)—held a press conference. The speaker said that "this is about freedom," celebrating the support for WHPA while also taking aim at the "shameful" Texas law and the Supreme Court justices who let it stand, despite the "dangerous" vigilante activity it promotes.

Over the past three weeks, abortion providers in Texas have shared how the new law has interfered with their ability to provide care to patients, and clinics in surrounding states have seen an increase in demand, as Texans who are beyond the six-week limit are forced to choose between traveling during a pandemic, if they can affort it, or carrying the pregnancy to term.

"At a time when states like Texas have heightened attacks on reproductive justice, it is imperative that the federal government steps in to defend abortion care across our nation," said URGE (Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity) executive director Kimberly Inez McGuire. "The Women's Health Protection Act is a crucial step toward making abortion access a reality."

"For too long, abortion bans of all kinds have kept essential care out of reach, especially for young, low-income, and BIPOC folks," she continued. "Young people in the South and Midwest are demanding solidarity and action to defend abortion and uplift our communities. Along with ending abortion coverage bans and ensuring access for young people who need abortion, passing WHPA gets us closer to a day when our decisions are truly our own."

Even before Texas' S.B. 8 took effect, experts at the Guttmacher Institute warned earlier this year that 2021 was on track to see "unprecedented" attacks on reproductive freedom, with Republican state lawmakers pushing hundreds of bans and other restrictions on abortion care.

Welcoming the House's vote Friday, NARAL Pro-Choice America acting president Adrienne Kimmell said that "the threat to our fundamental rights looms larger than ever and the freedom to make our own decisions about our lives, futures, and families is at stake."

"Time is of the essence; lawmakers must act before other states follow Texas' lead and the Supreme Court has the opportunity to use the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case as a vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade," she warned, referring to the upcoming challenge to a Mississippi abortion ban.

"This is a moment of crisis for reproductive freedom and all options must be on the table to ensure the right to safe, legal abortion," Kimmell added. "We cannot allow the filibuster, or anything else, to stand in the way of safeguarding our fundamental freedoms."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) released a joint statement on the House action with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the measure's lead sponsor in the chamber.

"We are currently seeing unprecedented and unconscionable Republican attacks on reproductive rights across the country laced with vicious vigilantism," they said. "Congress must assert its role to protect the constitutional right to abortion. We commend the House on the passage of the Women's Health Protection Act and announce that the Senate will vote on this critical legislation in the very near future."

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