Sunday was the kind of anniversary you wish you didn’t have to celebrate: specifically, the 36th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, one of the most restrictive reproductive rights laws in recent history. It restricts the use of federal funds for abortion services, meaning that people on publicly-funded insurance programs like Medicaid and Medicare (the low-income and the disabled) have to pay for abortion services out of pocket. The vast majority of the women affected by this ban are low-income, and if you are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, you aren’t likely to be able to shell out anywhere from $300 to $3000 for an abortion procedure.
But, of course, that was exactly the point of the Hyde Amendment. “I would certainly 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,” said Henry Hyde, author of the amendment.
Unfortunately, though, it seems that we often forget this intention, and somehow decide that it’s okay to equivocate on this issue. Efforts to repeal the Hyde amendment are more often than not seen as unrealistic, and advocates work instead to maintain the status quo—low-income women denied access to abortion. Often the argument is that if we try and fight the public funding battle, we might lose ground in overall access to abortion. But I think that the exact opposite is true. If we don’t fight the public funding debate, we’re going to lose altogether.
The reason is that the public funding debate is simply a slippery slope toward outlawing abortion (and now even birth control) altogether. Take, for example, the 2011 move by Ohio legislators to slip an anti-choice amendment into the state budget. Their new restriction? Extending the public funding ban by banning abortion procedures in public hospitals and facilities in the state. Now, remember, state-funded insurance programs (Medicaid, Medicare) already don’t cover abortions, so if a woman on Medicaid walks into an Ohio hospital, her insurance isn’t going to cover the procedure. Taxpayers literally aren’t going to pay for the procedure—she’s going to, out of pocket, if the abortion is considered “non-therapeutic,” for reasons other than her life and health.
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So why the redundant amendment? Because while her procedure won’t be paid for by taxpayer dollars, the facility itself, a public hospital, is supported by taxpayer dollars. This may seem like a huge leap to make, but this amendment passed (along with the budget), and became the rule of law in Ohio. This is the natural extension of the Hyde Amendment, and every day anti-choice advocates go a little further. Under the logic of the Ohio bill, even privately-run clinics and hospitals could be subject to abortion bans. They too are serviced by public roads and sidewalks, their water and electricity provided by public utilities. Even police and fire departments are supported by taxpayer dollars. Under the logical end of this rationale, only abortions provided on private islands, with private security, that were off the grid, could conceivably be done without being considered “publicly-funded.” Obviously this is absurd, but we shouldn’t have to wait until the public funding debate goes all the way to its logical extremity before we realize we can’t afford to leave this battle alone.
The simple fact of the injustice of this law should be enough to have the entire reproductive rights community up in arms, but unfortunately, that has not been the case. Maybe it’s because the people in power have private health insurance that keeps them covered, or because abortion funds around the country have cropped up to fill some of the gaps. But we’re at a critical moment where we have to redouble our efforts and claim the ground we’ve conceded these past almost 40 years—otherwise we might find the ground we’re protecting quickly disappearing beneath our feet.