Senate Republicans Block Bill Protecting Right to Travel for Abortion

Abortion activists march to the White House to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end federal abortion rights protections on Saturday, July 9, 2022. (Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Abortion is now banned in at least nine U.S. states, with more on the way. As restrictions and bans continue to take effect across the country, the need to travel across state lines for reproductive healthcare has grown even more critical. Yet an attempt to pass legislation to protect women traveling to seek abortion healthcare failed to make its way through the Senate on Thursday. The bill’s sponsors sought passage through unanimous consent, but Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma blocked the bill. (Oklahoma banned nearly all abortions in April, before the Roe v. Wade reversal.)

At the same time, Missouri Republicans have unveiled legislation intended to halt interstate travel from anti-abortion states to states where abortion remains legal. The Missouri bill was inspired by draft model legislation from The Thomas More Society, an anti-abortion group, and will likely be adapted by other state lawmakers, who will then introduce copycat bills in their individual statehouses; Republicans in Texas and Arkansas have already begun work on such legislation.

U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced the Freedom to Travel for Health Care Act of 2022 on Tuesday. The legislation would have provided a guarantee for constitutional protections for interstate travel to seek reproductive healthcare, especially abortion care. It would have also protected healthcare providers in abortion-legal states from prosecution and lawsuits for serving individuals traveling from other states.

“Republicans lawmakers have already set their sights on ripping away the right to travel. Let’s be really clear what that means: They want to hold women captive in their own states,” said Murray from the Senate floor. “They want to punish women—and anyone who might help them—for exercising their constitutional right to travel within our country to get the services they need in another state.”

“Anti-choice state legislators … want to pass bills to fine or prosecute women who travel for healthcare, providers who offer abortion services, and the many employers who have said they will support their employees who need to seek reproductive care in another state,” said Cortez Masto. “These bills are blatantly unconstitutional. They constrain the fundamental constitutional right to travel. They are anti-woman and anti-business. And merely proposing them has created profound uncertainty for patients, health care providers, insurers, and employers across the country.”

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet also joined his colleagues in urging the Senate to pass the act. “It wasn’t enough to strip women of this fundamental right and have the states force them to bring a pregnancy to term. Now they want to use the law to prevent her from traveling from one state to another in the United States of America,” he said. “This is despicable, especially coming from the same people who can never stop telling us how devoted they are to freedom and liberty. What a lie that is.”

Bennet’s state recently opted to increase protections for reproductive rights, with Gov. Jared Polis (D) signing the Reproductive Health Equity Act, establishing the fundamental rights to use contraceptives and have an abortion, into law in April. 

The ability to travel to seek abortion care is a privilege in and of itself: Traveling for an abortion can be expensive and time-consuming. Such a trip often requires time off from work, childcare arrangements, lodging and significant planning. These challenges disproportionately affect low-income and Black patients. Experts say this could create lasting economic disparities as women are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, either due to fear of prosecution, the inability to travel to seek care, or both.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Roxy Szal is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.