“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. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the Medicaid bill.”
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) spoke these words in a 1977 congressional debate. Hyde got his wish granted with the passage of his sponsored piece of legislation, the Hyde amendment, which has had an unfair, unjust, and destructive effect on women’s reproductive rights for over 30 years.
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Reproductive rights have been a hot topic in the media and among women’s rights groups for a few weeks now with the passage of Title X funding cuts in the House of Representatives and the subsequent devastation it could have on Planned Parenthood (if not blocked by the senate and President). However, the Hyde amendment has been limiting reproductive rights for decades and most people in the U.S. know nothing about it. Abortion opponents view the Hyde Amendment as one of their first landmark successes. The legislation was passed in 1977 as a response to the legalization of abortion as determined by Roe vs. Wade. It is an amendment, not a law, banning the use of federal funds to pay for abortions primarily under the Medicaid program. It has been approved annually since its inception as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education appropriations.
Medicaid plays a vital role in health coverage, and specifically reproductive health care coverage for low-income women. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that the program provides health care coverage for more than 55 million low-income adults and children in the United States. Since women, particularly women of color, are overrepresented in the poverty statistics they constitute the majority of beneficiaries. Nearly 7 out of 10 beneficiaries older than age 14 are women. Approximately 7 million women, or 12% of women of reproductive age (15-44) in the United States, are enrolled in the program. In the United States, Medicaid is the largest source of federal dollars supporting family planning services and supplies. This includes coverage of preventive services and screenings such as prescription contraceptives, pap smears, STI testing and treatment, and reproductive health counseling.
Studies conducted by the Guttmacher Institute found that perhaps the most compelling and frightening impact of the Hyde Amendment is 18-35% of women who would have had an abortion had it been paid for by Medicaid instead ended up continuing their pregnancy. The number of actual pregnancies continued is estimated to be between 64,000 and 84,000.
A constitutional right that limits access on the basis of income level cannot logically be named a right. For many low-income women choice is limited in so many areas of their lives and is basically a luxury, why limit control over such a personal and life-changing matter as pregnancy? Furthermore, poor low-income mothers are often characterized as abusing the welfare system by the same lawmakers who limit their right to obtain the full spectrum of family planning options. The hypocrisy is maddening.
Every single woman in the United States should have the constitutional right to access a safe, legal abortion. However, we cannot in good conscience say that this is the case. The Hyde amendment along with several other national and state policies, including provisions added to the Health Reform bill, unfairly target poor women by essentially taking away this right. The same outrage seen in the aftermath of the Title X bomb needs to be applied to the Hyde amendment. Citizens, public interest groups, and policymakers advocating for women’s, abortion, and Medicaid rights should band together against this legislation. I would specifically urge all women who believe in reproductive freedoms to defend the right to choose for our lower-income friends, neighbors, and sisters. The Hyde amendment does not only threaten abortion and reproductive rights for low-income women, but for all women. How can those of us who are more fortunate, be secure in our ability to obtain an abortion, when rights for other women are restricted unfairly?