The Delaware state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would keep abortion legal in the state if a future U.S. Supreme Court shaped by President Donald Trump overturns the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized it nationally.
The measure was approved by a vote of 11-7 but needs to be passed by the House and signed by Democratic Governor John Carney Jr. to take effect.
Democrats control both houses of the Delaware legislature but are facing a June 30 end to this year's session.
Carney "supports the rights and protections afforded women under Roe v. Wade" but has not yet said whether he will sign the bill into law, said his spokeswoman Jessica Borcky.
Trump has promised to appoint justices to the nation's top court, including recent appointee Neil Gorsuch, who would overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling and leave it up to the individual states to decide whether to legalize abortion. Trump received strong support from anti-abortion groups in the election campaign.
Delaware is one of 11 states with a pre-Roe abortion ban still on the books, according to the Guttmacher Institute which tracks reproductive policy.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion would be almost immediately illegal in four states - Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to Guttmacher and the Center for Reproductive Rights. In the other 46 states, abortion would remain legal but in at least 10 states - including Delaware - it could become illegal with a step as simple and swift as a state attorney general's opinion, Guttmacher said.
"There wasn't a sense of urgency until President Trump got elected," said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood of Delaware formed the "She Decides Delaware" campaign to lobby for legislation to keep abortion legal.
"We don't want to leave the women of Delaware in a vulnerable position," MacRae said. "It's up to the woman and the family to decide when she would like to become a parent."
Momentum for the bill grew in April when a coalition of state religious leaders including Jewish, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Unitarian clergy publicly declared "acceptance" of abortion in a show of support for Planned Parenthood. The state's Catholic leader, Bishop Francis Malooly of the Diocese of Wilmington, immediately denounced the statement.
The bill itself has a minimalist design. It aims to keep the provisions of Roe v. Wade rather than repeal the 1953 state ban.
"This bill simply seeks to codify the framework in place for a very long time - that a woman has a right to choose," Senator Bryan Townsend, a Democrat who is the bill's sponsor, told colleagues before the vote.
"It's a decision that belongs with the woman, her doctor and her family," said Senator Stephanie Hansen, a Democrat and bill co-sponsor.
Opponents denounced the move. "Any civilized society restricts an individual's right to choose when it would affect an innocent person. I can think of no more innocent person than an unborn child," said Senator Bryant Richardson, a Republican.
"You can codify abortion all you want but you are still codifying the murder of an unborn child," said Delaware Right to Life spokeswoman Moira Sheridan.
Under the 1950s' Delaware ban, terminating a pregnancy is a felony for the provider and a misdemeanor for the woman, except when it is deemed a "therapeutic abortion" in either case.
Dr. Larry Glazerman, medical director at Planned Parenthood Delaware, said he is confident the bill is enough to protect him and other doctors who provide abortion from prosecution.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)