May 11, 2022

VIDEO: Van Hollen Delivers Floor Speech Ahead of Senate Vote to Codify Roe v. Wade

Yesterday evening, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate on the need to protect Americans’ constitutional right to reproductive freedom as the Senate today prepares to vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation that would codify the protections in Roe v. Wade. The Senate action – and the Senators’ remarks – followed the release of a draft Supreme Court opinion showing the conservative majority on the Court are poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a precedent that has protected legal access to abortion under the Constitution for nearly 50 years. A full transcript of the Senator remarks follows. Video of the Senator’s full remarks can be viewed here and can be downloaded upon request.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): Madam President, first, I want to thank my friend and colleague, the Senator from Michigan, for coming to the floor to share his own powerful and personal story and the stories of his constituents about why so many of us are here on the Senate floor this evening. And it's because eight days ago, our country received a terrible wake-up call. 

A leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States indicated that a majority of five Justices may be on the verge of overturning the constitutional protections of reproductive freedom set forth in Roe v. Wade. We don't know if this draft opinion will be the final decision. But we do know there's a very high chance that the Supreme Court of the United States will soon blow up 50 years of precedent and strip women of their constitutional right to make choices about their own bodies and their own self-determination. 

And while the content of this opinion is shocking, it's not totally surprising. This is the premeditated outcome of years – years – of plotting and planning by the right-wing legal movement and the Republican party. Candidate Donald Trump promised the nation he would handpick justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. On the campaign trail, he even claimed that Roe would be overturned “immediately,” once he assumed office. And he stated on national television that women who receive abortions should be punished. 

Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans made up their own rules and then broke their own rules in order to play their part in this scheme. First, Senate Republicans refused to even hold a hearing on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, on the grounds that it was a presidential election year. Four years later, Senate Republicans rushed through one of President Trump's own Supreme Court nominees just weeks before the 2020 election. And in between, Senate Republicans carved out an exception to the Senate filibuster rule so they could push through all three of Trump's anti-choice Supreme Court picks – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Each of these nominees raised their right hand before the Senate Judiciary Committee and swore under oath that they respected the weight of judicial precedent. In fact, when Brett Kavanaugh was asked about Roe v. Wade, he pointed to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed the core holding in Roe establishing a constitutional right to abortion, and he called the decision in Casey“precedent on precedent” – a double precedent.

But, Madam President, let's be very clear, this draft opinion has no respect for judicial precedent. If the draft holds, all three of President Trump's nominees to the Supreme Court – along with some others already on the bench – will have deliberately deceived and defrauded the American public. Right-wing ideologues set out to stack the court with justices ready and willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. Now, this right-wing establishment, this machinery, is on the verge of achieving their goal – even though their win will be a horrible loss for the reputation of the Supreme Court, a horrible loss for the integrity of our Constitution, and most of all a horrible loss for the American people. 

Madam President, more than half of the women and girls of reproductive age in our country live in states that would likely ban or severely restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Thirteen states have so-called “trigger laws” that will kick into effect automatically the day Roeis overturned. Nine states have passed laws that were struck down in the past because they violated the protections of Roe, but those laws could come back if Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

Many of these laws we're talking about are extreme.

One “trigger law” in Kentucky would ban all abortions at any point in pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape, no exceptions for incest, or a situation in which a child could be born with a fatal birth defect.

Another “trigger law,” in Idaho, would make providing an abortion at any point in pregnancy, and under almost any circumstances, a felony crime punishable by five years in prison. 

A Texas law that's on the books right now would put doctors in jail or fine them up to $10,000 for prescribing pills for medication abortions through telehealth or the mail for women who are more than seven weeks pregnant.

And a law that's been on the books since 1931 in Michigan would snap back into effect, making nearly all abortions at any point in pregnancy a felony. And women who undergo medication abortions would be made felons – even in the case of rape and incest. 

Just last week, state legislators in the Louisiana House advanced a bill through committee that would allow women who obtain abortions at any time in pregnancy to be prosecuted for murder – for murder. Experts say that this extreme law could also be used to restrict emergency contraception and in vitro fertilization, which is a critical process that helps couples with infertility build their families.

Madam President, like many of our colleagues, I've been hearing from my constituents –  my constituents in the State of Maryland – who’ve learned just how dangerous the situation is for women and families across the country. One constituent, named Connie, shared her story of taking emergency contraception after she was attacked and raped by a stranger at the age of 18. She told me about the importance of being able to make that choice about her body and her future, instead of potentially becoming pregnant because of a rape. Today, Connie is a social worker, a therapist, and has a wonderful son. I've received other testimonials from constituents across the State of Maryland who shared their stories and expressed their deep concern and fear about the Court striking down Roe v. Wade

Madam President, if Roe is overturned, women living in states where safe and legal abortion is banned will have to travel away from their homes, away from their communities, away from their families –  simply to exercise control over their own bodies. Those who lack the money or the time will either be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or find somebody performing abortions in the shadows in their states – a throwback to the dangerous back-alley abortions. 

In 1965, eight years before the Roe v. Wade decision, illegal abortion accounted for 17 percent – 17 percent –  of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth. That past could soon be our present. 

So, Madam President, you see, this Supreme Court decision doesn't just turn back the clock on precedent, it turns back the clock on public health as it strips women of their reproductive freedoms.

And in a world where Roe has been overturned – as you drive across our great country, your rights will change from state to state as you cross each state border. That's the result of taking away a constitutional right. And that's why polling shows the great majority of the American people do not want the Supreme Court to take away the rights under Roe v. Wade

Now, I'm proud to represent a state that has codified a woman's right to reproductive choice. In fact, during my very first campaign for public office, the right to reproductive choice was the defining issue in my election to the Maryland General Assembly. 

It was another time when there was great fear that a Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade. And so, I ran on the pro-choice ticket. And after I was sworn in – in a matter of months – my colleagues and I passed a bill in 1991 codifying Roe v. Wade as a matter of Maryland state law. 

But here's the thing – laws like the one we have in Maryland – laws like the one we passed back in 1991, will be on the chopping block if this decades-long right-wing project continues to go according to plan. Because the Republicans' ultimate objective isn't just to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's to enact a federal law passed in this Senate and in the House banning abortion nationwide.

Last week, Leader McConnell acknowledged that a national ban on abortion was a real possibility, during an interview with USA Today. That should sound alarm bells all over America. This has been a two-step process. Step number one: strike down the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade that prohibit elected officials – whether in state legislatures or in Congress – from enacting laws that prohibit or restrict unnecessarily the right to choose. That's step one – seems we're on the verge of that happening. 

Once you clear the way – step two: enact a federal law in Congress banning abortion everywhere in the country. And we've seen exactly how extreme those laws can be from the state examples I cited earlier. That could happen here if this Republican right-wing project sees its logical end.  

That federal law would supersede Maryland's law. If Congress passed that law and it was enacted, state laws like those in Maryland protecting the right to choose in Maryland would be knocked off the books. That's true of other state laws – statutes – that protect a woman's right to choose. No woman in America would be safe to attain a safe and legal abortion if such a national law were enacted.

Now, Madam President, everyone should also understand another huge danger posed by the draft. Its flawed logic not only would dismantle the right to an abortion. It could also be used to strip away other rights protected by the Constitution. I've read Justice Alito's draft opinion. I’ve read all 98 pages of it. In this opinion, Justice Alito tries to distinguish – he tries to distinguish this case on abortion from other cases involving other individual rights. Alito claims that this case is special because it involves abortion and the State’s interest in protecting life, while other cases do not. 

Well, that's obvious on its face. But it misses the bigger danger in Alito's opinion. Because it doesn't change the fact that Justice Alito's reasoning for dismantling the right to obtain an abortion, can be used to dismantle many other rights that we currently take for granted as well. 

Justice Alito claims that even as you look at the entire Constitution, you cannot find a right to choose for women – that you cannot derive that from the Constitution. In fact, on page five of the draft opinion, Justice Alito writes: “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” And if we follow Justice Alito's flawed logic, the same could be said of a host of other rights that are not specifically named in the Constitution. The Constitution doesn't have the word “contraception” in it. The Constitution doesn't talk about consenting adults engaged in sexual relations. 

Look, this is the thing – over time the Supreme Court has recognized components of liberty through a close analysis of the Bill of Rights in the 14th Amendment, and that includes the right to use contraception, the right of consenting adults to have sexual relations with who they choose, and the right to marry who you love.

These are rights the American people don't want elected officials to take away, whether they're state legislators, or members of the Senate, or the House. But they're all at peril too if the logic of Alito's reasoning is played out. 

And the terrible irony, the terrible irony here, is those who most claim to oppose government regulations of any kind are now the ones rushing to regulate the most intimate, personal, and private aspects of American life. They say they don't want government having any role in their life, “get out of my way” – except for when it comes to them taking away this right and planning to pass laws that would ban abortion nationally – and as I said, opening the door to go in after other liberties, as well.  

So those are the stakes that we're facing as we gather here this evening in anticipation of tomorrow's vote. And that's why we're taking this vote tomorrow. That's why we need to pass the Women's Health Protection Act. But even if we fall short this time, having a vote now is important. It's important to the country. Democracy requires accountability, and it's important that the American people know where each of the Senators stands on this issue. It's a fundamental question. 

So, Madam President, as we move into November toward the midterm elections, the American people will be watching closely how members of this body vote on this fundamental constitutional question. And they will look to see who voted to strip away constitutional rights and who rose to protect them. And Madam President, I believe that the majority of this country – the overwhelming majority of this country – wants to stand up to protect fundamental liberties in the Constitution of the United States.