Leahy, Sanders back unsuccessful effort to codify Roe into law

Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy. File photos by Kit Norton and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As U.S. Senate Democrats teed up a doomed vote to protect abortion access nationwide, Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders called into question whether the U.S. Supreme Court, and even the Senate, represent the interests of the American public.

Wednesday’s vote came just over one week after news broke of a leaked draft majority U.S. Supreme Court opinion which, should it become official, would overturn decades-old court precedent upholding nationwide abortion protections.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, which failed after a 49-51 procedural vote Wednesday afternoon, would have codified into law federal abortion case precedent set by the landmark Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey decisions of 1973 and 1992, respectively. 

“The right of any woman to receive the health care they choose and seek should be important to each and every one of us,” Leahy said on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. “Women — our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, friends — they know what is best for them in their own lives. How patronizing to suggest otherwise. How patriarchal. How insulting. How dangerous.”

In their remarks, Sanders and Leahy pointed to public opinion polling, which consistently shows that a majority of Americans support upholding Roe case precedent, and think abortion should remain legal. According to a recently released poll by Washington Post and ABC News, 70% of Americans surveyed said that “the decision to have an abortion should be left up to the pregnant person and her doctor.”

“Yet 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,” Leahy said in a Wednesday afternoon floor speech. “That’s ludicrous.”

Without nationwide protections, the question of abortion access will go to individual states, dozens of which are poised to ban or severely restrict access to the procedure. Democrats warn that, should Republicans retake a congressional majority and the White House, a nationwide abortion ban could be next.

If the draft opinion goes into effect, abortion will remain legal in Vermont under state law. Vermonters in November will vote on Proposal 5, which would enshrine the right to an abortion into the state constitution.

“If the United States Senate was truly a representative body of the American people — which, for a variety of reasons, clearly it is not — we would easily have 60 votes to pass this bill and women would be protected,” Sanders said of the Women’s Health Protection Act on Tuesday.

With the Supreme Court’s final decision set to come down any day now, Leahy and Sanders last week called on their colleagues to change the Senate’s parliamentary filibuster rules — which require 60 votes to pass major legislation, as opposed to a simple majority — in order to get the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. The U.S. House passed the bill in September.

It was a longshot, after Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, respectively of West Virginia and Arizona, quashed a similar effort in January when faced with major voting rights legislation. Ahead of Wednesday’s abortion vote, Manchin told Washington reporters he wouldn’t support the effort.

“I hear a lot of talk from my Democratic colleagues about the need for unity,” Sanders said Tuesday. “Well, if there was ever a time for unity, now is that time.”

Sanders in his speech called on his colleagues to “remember how we got to where we are today,” pointing to former President Donald Trump’s pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn Roe, and then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s move to alter filibuster rules in order to confirm Trump’s appointees with simple majority votes.

Sanders went on to note that four of the five justices poised to overturn Roe — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito — were nominated by presidents (Trump and former-President George W. Bush) who lost the nation’s popular vote.

“Is there any wonder why Americans all over our country are losing faith in their democracy?” Sanders asked. “If Republicans can end the filibuster to install right wing justices nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote in order to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats can and must end the filibuster to make abortion legal and safe.”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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