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Abortion access in D.C., may be up to the GOP majority on Capitol Hill

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Supreme Court pushed the question of abortion rights back to the states. But what does that mean for the residents of the District of Columbia, which is not a state? The fate of abortion access in the nation's capital may be left to Congress, where Washington residents don't have a vote. Martin Austermuhle of member station WAMU explains.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: Washington, D.C., is heavily Democratic, and virtually all of its elected officials say that abortion will remain legal in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling. But that may not last long, mostly because it's not up to them.

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ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Because we do not have statehood, we are subservient still to the House and the Senate.

AUSTERMUHLE: Eleanor Holmes Norton is the city's non-voting representative in Congress. Even though Washington's residents have elected a mayor and local legislators for the last 50 years, the city remains a federal district under the control of Congress. And that means a Republican majority on Capitol Hill could act to outlaw abortion in the nation's capital, regardless of what the city's locally elected officials want.

In the past, congressional Republicans have tried to restrict abortion access in Washington. Bo Shuff is the director of DCVote, a group pushing for statehood.

BO SHUFF: We still see what's called the Dornan Amendment in place - it's been in place, I think, since the '90s - that prevents us from using local funds for abortion care for low-income women.

AUSTERMUHLE: Congressional Republicans have tried to outlaw abortions past 20 weeks and prohibit the procedure in any of the city's public hospitals, but those efforts were blocked by Democrats. A bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state has passed the House twice in recent years, but has stalled in the Senate. Shuff says Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster to allow the statehood bill to pass with a simple majority. That's the same move abortion-rights activists are pushing for to enshrine those protections in federal law. In the meantime, Washington's local officials are urging voters outside the city to help Democrats hold the House in November, one of the few protections they say exists to help keep abortion legal in the city.

For NPR News, I'm Martin Austermuhle in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for DCist.com. He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.