Democrats vow to protect abortion rights after Supreme Court decision

Washington — President Biden and congressional Democrats are vowing to take action to protect a woman’s right to an abortion after a divided Supreme Court allowed a Texas law outlawing the procedures after six weeks of pregnancy to remain in effect in a late-night decision Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged Thursday that once the House returns to Washington, D.C., later this month from its recess, it will take up legislation that enshrines the right to an abortion into federal law and prohibits “medically unnecessary restrictions” on abortion services or facilities. 

“This ban necessitates codifying Roe v. Wade,” Pelosi said in a statement condemning the Supreme Court’s decision. The high court established the woman’s right to an abortion in its 1973 decision in Roe. 

The speaker blasted the court’s order, saying its “cowardly, dark-of-night decision to uphold a flagrantly unconstitutional assault on women’s rights and health is staggering.”

Introduced by Congresswoman Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, the bill could pass the House but faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Democrats have a fragile majority with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

For the bill to advance in the evenly divided Senate, 10 Republicans would need to join all Democrats in supporting it. While some moderate Republicans, such as Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they support abortion rights, it’s unclear how many would support efforts to codify Roe’s protections into law. Forty-eight of the Senate’s 50 Democrats are co-sponsors of its version of Chu’s bill.

In a 5-4 decision just before midnight, the Supreme Court spurned a request from a group of abortion providers to block the Texas abortion law, which is the most restrictive in the nation.

In addition to banning the procedures as early as six weeks, which is before many women know they’re pregnant, the measure also authorizes private citizens rather than state officials to file civil lawsuits in state courts against alleged violators. Those who may be sued include doctors and staff, as well as anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion, such as by driving her to a clinic for the procedure. If a lawsuit is successful, the plaintiff is entitled to at least $10,000 from the violator.

The five-justice majority said its order was “not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law,” but Mr. Biden warned its impact “will be immediate and requires an immediate response.”

The president announced he is directing his Gender Policy Council and the White House Counsel’s Office to “launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision, looking specifically to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to see what steps the federal government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions as protected by Roe, and what legal tools we have to insulate women and providers from the impact of Texas’ bizarre scheme of outsourced enforcement to private parties.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is “evaluating all options to protect the constitutional rights of women, including access to abortion.” It’s unclear what, specifically, the Biden administration can do to protect abortion access in Texas while the law remains in effect. 

The move by the high court is a major victory for anti-abortion advocates, who are hopeful the Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority will clear the way for a host of state-level abortion restrictions to take effect. The justices will hear a case in its upcoming term involving a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks, and Mississippi officials, as well as a host of other GOP-led states, are asking the high court to overturn Roe outright.

But its decision to reject the emergency request from abortion providers and pro-abortion rights groups has also reignited two issues that has divided Democrats in Congress: adding seats to the Supreme Court and eliminating the legislative filibuster, which would allow bills like Chu’s to advance in the Senate with a simple majority.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, called the Supreme Court’s decision “devastating” and said Congress needs to act.

“Congress must step up now to codify the reproductive rights guaranteed to women by Roe v. Wade – and we can’t let the filibuster stand in the way,” he tweeted.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, too, said the Senate should not let the filibuster impede legislative efforts to “protect the right to safe, legal abortion.”

Moderate Senate Democrats, though, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose getting rid of the filibuster.

Progressives, meanwhile, argue the court’s decision also underscores the need for Congress to pass legislation expanding the high court, which would dilute the power of its conservative majority.

“Talk is cheap. To protect reproductive rights once and for all, we must” add seats to the Supreme Court, Congressman Mondaire Jones of New York tweeted. His call was echoed by other Democrats like Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Veronica Escobar of Texas.

A group of House Democrats introduced legislation in April to add four seats to the Supreme Court, growing it to 13 justices. Mr. Biden has tasked a bipartisan commission with studying reforms to the court, including adding seats.