US Democrats' bid for federal abortion law fails in the Senate

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer addresses mediaImage source, Getty Images
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer addresses media

US Senate Democrats have failed to pass a bill to make the right to abortion a federal law, as the nation's top court is poised to curtail it.

The move, meant to counter the Supreme Court's expected ruling that abortions can be banned, was seen as doomed from the start.

The Democrat-led House passed the bill, but it failed 49-51 in the Senate.

Votes were closely watched as abortion emerges as a flashpoint ahead of this year's midterm elections.

"Sadly, the Senate failed to stand in defence of a woman's right to make decisions over her own body," Vice-President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, said outside the Senate chamber following the vote.

Despite the heightened scrutiny, it appeared to be business-as-usual in the Senate. Vice-President Harris presided over the vote in the mostly empty chamber as senators gradually filed in to cast their votes.

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Pro-choice protesters outside Justice Samuel Alito's house in Alexandria, Virginia, on Monday

Wednesday's vote came a day before the Supreme Court's nine justices are due to meet for the first time since a draft ruling on abortion rights was leaked last week.

The document suggested the court will overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that granted women a constitutional right to abortion.

The leaked document, in which conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Roe was "egregiously wrong", triggered a political earthquake and demonstrations - either in protest or celebration - on both sides of the abortion debate.

The White House is now facing calls to condemn unlawful rallies by pro-choice activists outside the justices' private homes.

The draft opinion would not result in a nationwide ban on the procedure, but would allow states to bar abortion outright.

Ahead of the vote, a cluster of House Democrats - mostly women - walked across the Capitol to the Senate, chanting "my body, my decision" as a sign of support for the now failed legislation.

The bill before the Senate, called the Women's Health Protection Act, would bar states from enacting restrictions deemed "medically unnecessary", such as mandatory waiting periods and regulations on abortion clinics.

The law aimed most of its protections for the procedure before the point of foetal viability - approximately 24 weeks into a pregnancy. But it also prohibited bans beyond that time, when "in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient's life or health".

Some conservative critics say this would effectively legalise abortion for all nine months of pregnancy.

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, for example, accused Democrats of lining up "behind an extreme and radical abortion policy", adding that the legislation would goes "way beyond codifying the status quo" and "would roll back many laws".

All Republicans and one Democrat opposed it in the evenly divided Senate, where ties are broken by a vote from the vice-president.

A similar bill failed in February.

However, putting it up for a vote forced senators to go on the record on abortion - a political manoeuvre each side hopes can place pressure on their opponents ahead of mid-term elections in November.

"The vote we just took makes crystal clear the contrast between parties as we approach the mid-terms," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday.

"Elect more pro-choice Democrats if you want to protect a woman's right to choose," he said. "Elect more Maga Republicans if you want to see a nationwide abortion ban."

Before the vote, Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, argued that lawmakers should promote an "ethic of life", focusing on more support for mothers, rather than on abortion.

His comments followed that of Senator Patrick J Leahy of Vermont, the Senate's most senior Democrat, who called it "ludicrous" that a majority-male body would weigh in on an issue affecting women.

"Here we are today, a body of 100, 76% of which are male, making decisions about the private lives of the nearly 168 million women in this country," he said.

Polls suggest most Americans support at least some access to the procedure.

According to a March 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center, 61% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, though support falls sharply for allowing the procedure beyond the first trimester of pregnancy.