Nowhere to “Hyde”: Congressional Democrats target restriction on federal abortion funding

Woman and men protesting against abortion laws, holding their signs, most of them with an open mouth...

For over 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has barred any federal money from being used to pay for abortions, except for in some cases involving rape, incest or instances where the mother may lose her life. Although the amendment is just a rider on the annual appropriation bill to fund the Health and Human Services Department, in every year since 1976, Congress has approved the measure. Those days may now be over.

In response to President Donald Trump endorsing making the Hyde Amendment a permanent law during his campaign, Democratic Congresswomen Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and former New York representative Louise Slaughter, who has since died, introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or EACH Woman Act, in January 2017 to allow any woman who has health insurance through the federal government to have access to all reproductive care services, including abortion.

With Justice Brett Kavanaugh nominated to the Supreme Court, the Trump administration reviving the global gag rule — which denies international NGOs U.S. aid if they either refer or perform abortions — and also threatening to rescind Title X funds for organizations that provide family services and also make abortions available, the EACH Woman Act has gained new energy in the House, but has yet to find a sponsor in the Senate.

“Absolutely, there is a renewed sense of urgency to protect women’s reproductive rights,” Lee, who represents California’s 13th district and is also a co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus in the House, said.

“It’s clear that in the courts, the halls of Congress and the White House, Republicans are waging an all-out assault on our fundamental freedoms and liberties,” she added. “We need to act now to safeguard women’s fundamental right to comprehensive reproductive care.”

Although at first the Hyde Amendment only applied to those who had health insurance through Medicaid, it now applies to federal employees, military personnel, those in federal prisons, the Peace Corps and private plans purchased through state marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, if they were subsidized in any way through the federal government.

Hyde primarily impacts low-income women, who are the most likely to be on Medicaid, and women of color, who are statistically more likely to have an abortion, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. The majority of women who obtain abortions — 72 percent — are young and have an unsteady income, according to Kaiser. In 2014, 75% percent of women who had abortions were low-income, and 64% were black or Latina, Kaiser reported.

“I think that the groundswell has been slow to come, but it took the women who are most impacted to say, ‘We can’t be in this defensive posture,’” Destiny Lopez, co-director of All Above All, a reproductive rights group that backs the EACH Woman Act, said in an interview.

Kaiser estimates that if the Hyde Amendment is repealed, 14.5 million women on Medicaid and millions more in federal programs with the same restrictions would have insurance for abortions.

Thursday, HHS announced that it would fund 96 organizations, including Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, through Title X, but the division of the grants among the groups has not been made public. The battle over the funds was one of the reproductive rights battles where Lee said Democrats were “holding the line.”

Legislative action on the EACH Woman Act now depends on not just support in the House, where Lee said the bill has the backing of two-thirds of the Democratic caucus, but also a sponsor and support in the Senate, which is a trickier proposition. For that, activists are looking to the future, and counting on senators such as Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to sponsor the bill.

“We really believe that 2019 is our year — the public is with us on this issue and large groups of minorities in the rising electorate are with us on this issue,” Lopez said. “We have a critical mass of new folks in the Senate who are willing to take this up for us.”