The U.S. Senate will finally move the Women’s Health Protection Act closer to a vote at the end of the month. WHPA, a bill that would federally protect the right to abortion until “viability,” was passed by the House of Representatives in September. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the vote late Thursday night.
But the vote on February 28 will not be a vote on the substance of the bill. It will instead be the Senate’s first procedural move on WHPA, determining whether or not the chamber will start debate. “Across the country, the assault on women’s healthcare has intensified to levels not seen in decades—so the Senate is going to vote when we return on February 28 to take action,” Schumer said, according to Politico.
Although it is expected that Senate Republicans will vote against even allowing debate, at least one senator who’s no friend to abortion advocates said he will vote in favor of debating the legislation. “Given the recent Supreme Court rulings, potential rulings this year, and the Republican Party’s clear and unrelenting use of this issue as a political weapon, I will vote ‘yes’ to allow debate on this bill,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) said in a statement on Thursday night.
This marks a huge shift for Casey, who, though a Democrat, is anti-abortion. His policy pushes have included expanding access to other parts of reproductive healthcare, like improving Medicaid coverage for postpartum women, as was reflected in his WHPA statement: “I have long worked to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions, and I hope that as part of this debate we will also focus on new and substantial funding for pregnant women, infants, and children.”
Pro-abortion advocates are already showing their support for Senate Democrats. Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Senate was stepping in where the Supreme Court has refused to. “[The Supreme Court] has abandoned its duty to ensure that states do not nullify individual constitutional rights,” she said in a statement to Jezebel. “People are counting on the Senate to do what the Supreme Court will not. The hardship and chaos in Texas right now is coming to other states soon, unless the right to abortion is protected through federal legislation.”
It’s a milestone in and of itself that a debate on WHPA may happen, but it will still be an uphill climb for those lobbying in favor of the law. The Senate has failed to deliver major results—not just regarding reproductive healthcare—since Democrats took control. The Build Back Better Act for example, which is President Joe Biden’s attempt at a modern-day New Deal, is languishing in Congress’s upper chamber while more conservative Democrats decry the legislation’s reach.
With a tied Senate, votes have razor-thin margins. Public support for abortion rights guaranteed by Roe remains strong, but we’ve seen lawmakers flinch before. And if WHPA does manage to make its way onto Biden’s desk and into law? I wouldn’t be surprised if conservative litigators jumped on any chance to dilute its power, similar to the decade of lawsuits that chipped away at the Affordable Care Act after its passage.