Four decades ago, Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) greatly eroded poor women’s reproductive rights by outlawing federally-funded insurance coverage of most abortions. The author of the so-called Hyde Amendment made it no secret that his law was part of an attempt to make abortion illegal. "I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, or a poor woman," he said at the time. "Unfortunately the only vehicle available….is the Medicaid bill."
The Hyde’s Amendment was passed just three years after the Supreme Court made abortion a constitutionally-protected right in its Roe vs. Wade decision. Since its passage, Hyde has blocked people who are low income, disabled, in the military, working for the federal government or receiving healthcare through the Indian Health Service from using their health insurance. Despite the federal restriction, only 15 states use their own revenue to cover these procedures for people on Medicaid.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Hyde, especially for women on Medicaid who aren’t in a state that will cover the costs. Medicaid recipients are living on extremely low incomes. Having to quickly come up with anywhere from $300 to $3,000 for an often unexpected abortion can be extremely challenging, if not impossible. And the worst part? As women work to come up with that money—maybe by working extra shifts, borrowing from loved ones or waiting their next paycheck—the procedure gets more and more expensive as their pregnancy continues. Grassroots abortion funds have stepped in to help gather donations for women in need, but they can’t fill the entire gap.
These barriers disproportionately impact women of color. Numerically speaking, there are more White women on Medicaid than women of color. Yet more women of color are low-income and use Medicaid at a higher rate.
The Hyde legacy goes way beyond creating financial hardship for some women. The late congressman’s intervention has helped shape a political climate where abortion is radioactive. Even pro-choice organizations have been reluctant to take up the issue of repealing the Hyde Amendment. When the Affordable Care Act was close to being finalized, the issue of abortion funding almost brought the whole thing down. And the compromise that was struck? Maintaining the status quo of no federal dollars for abortion.
The tide finally seems to be turning. Both Democratic presidential candidates mentioned the Hyde amendment specifically during their campaigns. There is an entire group, All Above All, dedicated specifically to overturning this law. New polling data released by the group last week shows that public opinion, when the questions are asked correctly, is actually much more in favor of public funding for abortion than anyone previously believed. It mirrors similar polling done in July 2015, but is focused on voters in battleground states. That research found that 76 percent of voters agree with the statement: “However we feel about abortion, politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman’s health coverage for it just because she is poor.” The EACH Woman Act, introduced in July of 2015, now has 124 co-sponsors, and boldly asserts that the government-funded insurance programs should cover abortion care.
This week, reproductive justice advocates have been holding events and actions around the country for what they’re calling the United for Abortion Coverage Week of Action. This includes 130 activities in 38 states including concerts, comedy shows, bike rides, art installations and film screenings.
But these shifts don’t come without backlash from those dedicated to limiting access to abortion. During a committee hearing last week to discuss Hyde, the tone and conversation was decidedly anti-choice and had racist overtones. Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, asked an advocate from the anti-choice Charlotte Lozier Institute why the Black community doesn’t consider the high rate of abortions in the Black community a genocide. He also asked Kierra Johnson, executive director of the reproductive justice group URGE, whether puppies have more legal protections than fetuses. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, even implied that abortion is akin to slavery because women treat fetuses like property.
Johnson’s response was powerful, especially as the only Black woman speaking at the hearing: “It’s interesting that we’re bringing up slavery in this space. When you own somebody’s decision-making, you own them,” she said to significant applause from the audience. "We are not simple-minded. We are not being duped. The majority of women who have abortions are parents. They care. They care about their families."