Hyde Amendment Robs Women of Reproductive Choice

Emily Douglas

Barack Obama gets flack from the anti-choice blogosphere for opposing the Hyde Amendment. When federal funding is withheld from covering abortion care, what really happens to women?

As accusations that "Barack Obama is the most extreme
pro-abortion candidate ever on a national ticket" reverberate around the conservative
and anti-choice blogosphere, the Senator’s pro-prevention, pro-education
policies get scant attention – while his support for the Freedom of Choice Act
and his opposition to the Hyde Amendment come in for fierce derision.

Last week, Amie explained that the proposed federal Freedom
of Choice Act (FOCA) would do nothing more radical than codify the holdings of
Roe – the right of a woman to seek pre-viability abortion, and post-viability
abortion in the case of threat to her health – for women around the country
whose access to abortion has been steadily eroded by anti-choice laws mandating
waiting periods, biased counseling, coerced ultrasounds, TRAP laws and parental
notification laws, even a federal ban on certain abortion procedures without an
exception for women’s health.  In
affirmatively guaranteeing abortion rights to women, FOCA pushes anti-choice
buttons, yes, but it’s hardly extreme.

Roe was perhaps most significantly compromised by the
Hyde Amendment, which passed three years after Roe was decided and all but
invalidated Roe for low-income women. Hyde outlawed the use of federal funding
for abortion care except in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment,
meaning women on Medicaid, women in the military, disabled women and women
receiving care through the Indian Health Services cannot access funded abortion
through their health insurance.   Prior
to Hyde, Medicaid paid for nearly one-third of all abortions.  Since Hyde, federal Medicaid has paid for
less than one percent of all abortions, and thirty-three states have enacted
funding bans.  "The Hyde Amendment," Toni
Bond Leonard and Marlene Gerber Friend have written
, "makes reproductive
decisions privileges instead of rights." Barack Obama opposes the Hyde Amendment. Obama’s
campaign staff told Rewire
last December, "He believes that the
federal government should not use its dollars to intrude on a poor woman’s
decision whether to carry to term or to terminate her pregnancy and selectively
withhold benefits because she seeks to exercise her right of reproductive
choice in a manner the government disfavors."

While many anti-choice activists credit Hyde for protecting their
tax dollars from supporting a procedure they find morally repugnant, Hyde’s
impact, in fact, is far less neat, and it is hardly confined to the realm of
moral judgment.  The number of women of
reproductive age on Medicaid is far from negligible: more than seven million
women of reproductive age – 12% of all U.S. women in that age-group-are
enrolled in Medicaid. (Most women on Medicaid are already mothers, as childless
adults are typically ineligible.)  Studies
have repeatedly shown that Hyde pushes women to have later, less safe and more
expensive abortions rather than to forego abortion altogether; poor women take
up to three weeks longer than other women to access abortion care. "[T]he risk
of complications increases exponentially at higher gestations, so many poor
women become trapped in a vicious cycle in which their difficulties are
exacerbated and their health risks increased," writes Heather Boonstra
in a Guttmacher Institute policy review. 
Guttmacher studies show that 22% of Medicaid-eligible women having
second-trimester abortions would have terminated their pregnancies in the first
trimester if Medicaid had covered abortion care. Researchers Stanley K. Henshaw and Lawrence B. Finer
concluded that "the lack of Medicaid coverage may be the public policy that has
the greatest impact on the number of women who want an abortion but are unable
to get one."

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Being unable to cover the cost of an abortion means women
may forego food, rent or bills to pay for the procedure.  (Even a 10-week abortion costs an average of
$372.)  And some women in the end carry a
pregnancy to term they intended to terminate. 
Two decades of studies found that 18-35% of women who would have had an
abortion continued their pregnancies after Medicaid funding was cut off. "This
is not about the morality of abortion," says Liza Fuentes, recent board member
of the National Network of Abortion Funds. "It’s undercutting the health and
well-being of women with the least amount of money. The effect is to steal
women’s dignity away because they are poor." 

"Hyde targets people with the smallest voice in politics,"
says Fuentes. Chilling remarks made by the amendment’s sponsor, the late Rep.
Henry J. Hyde, during a congressional debate over Medicaid funding in 1977, bear
out Fuentes’s argument. "I certainly would like to prevent, if I could
legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a
poor woman," Hyde said. "Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is
the…Medicaid bill."

Compromises after Hyde removed the limited physical health
exception, and rape and incest exceptions were later dropped.  Boonstra reports that the current version of the Hyde Amendment allows federal funding for abortion in cases of rape and
incest, as well as life endangerment, but "tightens the life exception to permit
payment only when the woman’s life is threatened by ‘physical disorder,
physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical
condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.’"

Fuentes emphasizes that denial of Medicaid coverage for
abortion can only be fully understood as one of many denials of services that
plague women’s attempts to access adequate health care.  As our nation’s health care "system" fails to
insure millions, disproportionately female, as birth control pricing
skyrockets, as new Department of Health and Human Services provider
right-of-refusal laws would protect providers from dispensing even
contraception if they opposed it on religious grounds, and as Title X funding
stagnates – it’s clear that women’s access to a wide spectrum of reproductive
health services is compromised. The Hyde Amendment may offer a particularly politically
potent instance of health care refusal, but it is just one of many examples of
a health care system that fails to address women’s needs.

For Boonstra, however, the lack of public funding for
abortion is an aberration.  Boonstra
points out that other programs do attempt to fill the gaps in access for
low-income people – including Title X and other pregnancy-related
programs.  "Abortion care is the one
arena in which the government is abdicating its responsibility to women," she
says.

Overturning Hyde will be an uphill battle whether Obama
becomes president or not.  Pro-choice
advocates have long struggled to put progressive legislation that would expand
abortion access on the national stage; it’s unlikely that poor women’s
reproductive health care will find congressional sponsors ready to take on the
fight.  The National Network of Abortion
Funds and a diverse group of supporters working on the "Hyde – 30 Years Is
Enough!" campaign attempted to introduce a resolution in opposition to Hyde in
the last Congress and will try again next year.

"Legal abortion was supposed to level the playing field,"
says Boonstra, so that both low-income and economically comfortable women would
have access to abortion care.  "But by
taking away government funding, you just build the inequality back into the
system."

For more, watch "Our Reality": Access to Reproductive Health Care Services:
Our Reality: Helping Women Find Reproductive Health Information and Services from Rewire on Vimeo.

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