The Hyde Amendment: Legislating Inequality for 37 Years

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“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,” former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) said as he put forward signature legislation still bearing his name, the Hyde Amendment. It’s in large part due to Rep. Hyde that funds like the DC Abortion Fund (DCAF) exist.

The Hyde Amendment bans federal money from being used to pay for abortion care, meaning that any woman who has Medicaid as her insurance, or other groups like federal employees and Peace Corps volunteers, do not have coverage for an abortion should they need one, except in cases of rape, incest or to save her life. Abortion is the only medical procedure that is treated in this way. Since its passage, it has been estimated that more than a million women have been denied care.

Today marks the the 37th anniversary of the vote to pass the Hyde Amendment in Congress. By barring federal funding, Hyde has a disproportionate impact on low-income women, women of color and young women, creating often insurmountable obstacles. Indeed, restricting Medicaid coverage of abortion forces one in four poor women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. That we can claim to be the land of opportunity while forcing women into unwanted pregnancies, is disconcerting to say the least.

According to research from the Guttmacher Institute and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), approximately the same number of women utilize abortion funds as they do private health insurance, suggesting that funds play an important role in financing abortions. This reaffirms our experience. When you consider that most abortion patients are low-income, the Hyde Amendment becomes an even greater — and more nefarious — barrier to access.

The average cost of a first-trimester abortion is about $400. With so much talk of billion dollar budgets and trillion dollar debt, it’s easy to forget that $400 is still a lot of money to most people, and too much money for the women who call DCAF. There are women who call our helpline for whom $80 is the difference between getting the abortion she needs to protect the future of her family, and being denied her bodily autonomy and basic human rights.

Some women have the good fortune to live in one of the states that offer abortion coverage through their state Medicaid funds (there are seventeen, though only fifteen are really doing so). About 20 percent of the abortions in 2008 were paid for with Medicaid dollars, almost all of which were from those 15 states. For the remaining 33 states and D.C., where Medicaid won’t fund abortions, women’s lived experiences are trumped by politics. At DCAF, we like to say that a woman’s right to health care shouldn’t depend on her wallet. It shouldn’t depend on her zip code either.

The Hyde Amendment may have had an unintended consequence: proving how strong a woman’s will to determine her future can be. The researchers from Guttmacher and ANSIRH noted the following, “That most women pay several hundred dollars out of pocket for abortion services… with many relying on other people or organizations to help cover these costs, and with a minority delaying or not paying bills – suggests that abortion is not a decision women take lightly. Rather it confirms that women’s abortion decisions are consequential to their economic well-being both in choosing to terminate a pregnancy… and in obtaining an abortion.”

Reducing access to abortion doesn’t reduce the need for abortions. It just makes it harder on the women least able to pay for them. If we are going to continue calling ourselves a free society with equal opportunity for all, where “all” includes women, we need to remove amendments like Hyde. Outside of the clear health care risks, Hyde’s burden is exacerbated by the fact that income inequality is worse today than it was when the amendment passed, meaning that women and families have even less money to scrape up. Every year that Hyde is renewed (it’s actually a rider on an appropriations bill), it does nothing more than single out the most economically vulnerable for moral target practice. We deserve better – as individuals and as a society – from our elected officials. Thirty-seven years of injustice is more than enough. Let’s fund abortion now, and repeal Hyde once and for all.

Crinion is a progressive activist and board member of the DC Abortion Fund (DCAF). She earned her M.A. in Sociology from American University, focusing on gender, family, sexuality and the media. She has been published in The Huffington Post, Virginian Pilot, Ms. Magazine, Fem 2pt0, and Spike the Water Cooler. As a DCAF board member and former Planned Parenthood employee, she writes primarily about women’s issues and reproductive justice. Originally from Michigan, she currently resides in Washington, DC. Colleen tweets at @colleeneliza.

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