Commentary Abortion

The Hyde Amendment at 35: Lessons for Activists

Marlene G. Fried

September 30th is the 35th "anniversary" of the Hyde Amendment. Hyde's legacy is that pitted women of different economic classes against each other, and resulted in a pattern of trading reproductive health care for other health coverage.

This article is cross-posted from the National Network of Abortion Funds.

Find all of our coverage on the Hyde Amendment at 35 here.

The Hyde Amendment turns 35 this month. This provision, prohibiting federal Medicaid coverage of abortion in almost all circumstances, was the beginning of the anti-abortion movement’s post-Roe, all-out effort to ban abortion. It was a gateway bill, opening the door to the flood of restrictions that today constrict a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion, forcing women to “choose” between paying for other basic necessities and having an abortion, and, in too many cases, making abortion impossible. It became the precedent for all other denials of abortion funding, and reinforces our discriminatory, two-tier health care system in which people without financial resources cannot get the care they need.

The persistence of the Hyde Amendment also created a series of disastrous roadblocks to inclusive reproductive health coverage in other legislation. For example, Congress banned abortion coverage in “The Affordable Care Act” in 2010. Compounding this specific policy loss was the profound ideological loss of normalizing the exclusion of abortion from health insurance. During the battle over health care reform, President Obama reassured those who feared that there might be an end run around Hyde by saying, “I’m pro-choice, but I think we also have the tradition in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.”

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As we mark this anniversary with our continued activism, I draw several political lessons to inform our advocacy going forward.

Understand the fight we are in:  The agenda is anti-woman, especially poor women

Paradoxically, the debate over abortion is not primarily about abortion itself. Rather, as Dr. George Tiller so eloquently put it, “This battle is about the self-determination of women over the direction and course of their lives. Abortion is about women’s hopes and dreams. Abortion is a matter of survival.”

Over time the anti-abortion movement has gotten more sophisticated in its approach, arguing in recent years it opposes abortion because of the harm it does to women’s health. False claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and causes women to suffer from post-abortion syndrome are intended to show that the anti-abortion movement cares as much about women as it does about fetuses. However, the theme of contempt and distrust for women, so clearly articulated during the original debate on the Hyde Amendment, recurs.  A recent attempt by Republicans to restrict government funding of abortion to cases of “forced” rape echoes the earlier debate where opponents claimed that “any woman who wants an abortion under Medicaid could go in and say” she has been raped, in order to get Medicaid to pay for her abortion.

Fight for what you really want

At the time the Hyde Amendment was passed, just three years after Roe v. Wade, its sponsors never thought they would succeed. The original Hyde Amendment proposal was unabashedly extreme, with no exceptions whatsoever, not even to save a woman’s life. Its sponsors were completely transparent about their goals. In 1976, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) said:

“I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody from having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.”

In 1977, Rep. Hyde and other House members held out for six months, orchestrating 25 roll call votes and delaying passage of a $60 million appropriations bill, before finally accepting a few exceptions in order to get the Amendment passed. But they kept pushing for what they really wanted until they successfully eliminated all but the exception for life endangerment in 1981. Up until 1993, Congress refused Medicaid funding to women who had been raped; only women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancy had any hope of receiving financial support for an abortion through Medicaid.

This tenacity became a signature characteristic of the anti-abortion movement: the ban on so-called “partial birth abortion,” the many state-level challenges to Roe itself, and egg-as-person amendments are just a few examples of this approach. The anti-abortion movement never takes no for an answer. By drawing lines in the sand and refusing to compromise, they have successfully restricted access to abortion, mobilized their base and made significant inroads into mainstream attitudes about abortion.

Do not allow the opposition to exploit divisions

By attacking abortion access, rather than legality, the Hyde Amendment divided the abortion rights movement along lines of race and class. It provided the possibility of being “pro-choice” without supporting real access, thereby trading away the needs of low-income women and women of color. When asked why women of color were not more visible in the pro-choice movement, longtime activist and former clinic director Brenda Joyner reframed the question to ask:

“[W]here is the primarily white middle-class movement in our struggles for freedom? Where was a white middle-class movement when the Hyde Amendment took away Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women?”

These divisions have continually arisen. Sometimes, as with the Hyde Amendment, women of different economic classes are pitted against each other. And sometimes, as in the argument over whether to support a health reform bill without abortion coverage, women are in the position of having their basic needs pitted against each other – trading reproductive health care for other health coverage. Here, too, President Obama actively contributed to this conflict, saying, “My main focus is making sure that people have options of high quality care at the lowest possible price” – as if abortion isn’t part of “high-quality care” for women.

As we look towards the future, it is my hope that we will resist the fragmentation that has weakened all of our struggles for social justice. The work of the abortion Funds reminds us daily that, as Audre Lorde told us, “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” Overturning the Hyde Amendment is just one part of our goal of achieving reproductive justice for all women. It is important that we pursue a bold vision, especially in challenging times. We need this vision to mobilize our movement because, as we have seen, the arc of history does not bend towards justice all by itself – it takes all of our hands.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

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Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.