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Kamala Harris Wants The Department Of Justice To Stop States From Passing Restrictive Abortion Laws

The Democratic presidential candidate’s new plan would mimic the Voting Rights Act.

Posted on May 28, 2019, at 12:53 p.m. ET

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Sen. Kamala Harris will announce a plan Tuesday to protect abortion rights: a Reproductive Rights Act that mimics the Voting Rights Act of 1965, forcing states with a history of violating abortion rights to clear any new abortion restrictions with the Department of Justice.

The law proposed by Harris, a former top prosecutor, would use the DOJ to block abortion restrictions — like the ones that have been passed in a slew of states from Alabama to Ohio in recent months — from going into effect if they don’t comply with Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that upheld the right to an abortion.

Harris’s plan is the latest in a series of proposals by Democratic presidential hopefuls that aim to protect abortion rights in the face of the perceived threat to Roe by a newly right-leaning Supreme Court. Virtually all Democratic candidates have said they want to pass a law that would codify the landmark Supreme Court ruling — a safety net of sorts if Roe is overturned by the court.

But the new rallying cry of codifying Roe, Harris’s campaign said, “simply ... isn’t enough”; states could still pass restrictive laws, which would then have to be challenged by courts. Like the law codifying Roe, Harris’s Reproductive Rights Act would have a slim chance of passing Congress with 60 votes in the Senate.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have also released abortion rights plans that go beyond solidifying Roe into federal law. Booker said he would create an “Office of Reproductive Freedoms” within the White House, and Warren promised a series of executive orders to roll back Trump administration rules.

But Harris’s plan is unique for the role it envisions for the Department of Justice on the front lines of stopping state-level abortion restrictions — something Democrats have been trying to do for years as more and more states chip away at Roe.

A bill cosponsored by Harris and many other Senate Democrats, the Women's Health Protection Act, lays out the basis by which Harris’s campaign says the DOJ would judge state laws — prohibiting states from banning abortions before fetal viability, a standard set out in Roe, but also preventing them from setting unnecessary standards for abortion clinics, equipment, and doctors. Those state laws, called TRAP laws, set high bars that act as barriers to opening new clinics, and shut down existing ones.

Harris, who served as California’s attorney general, has in part based her campaign on her prosecutorial background, including a focus on policy that would wield the power of the DOJ, the government’s law enforcement agency, in new and different ways.

She has said she wants to use the DOJ to combat violent extremism, including white nationalism, by doubling the agency’s civil rights division, and would command the agency’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke licenses of gun dealers who break the law.

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