Abortion in the U.S. — Legal Not Always Attainable

Once upon a time there was a very wicked man who also happened to be a U.S. congressman. He didn’t care too much for “uppity” women. He once said “I certainly would 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.” He was singing from the same hymnal of over a century of misogynists. A like-minded male voice thundered the same message in the 1850s. Dr. Horatio Storer who feared that the declining birth rates of the “right” people (middle and upper class white women and their mates) would result in a nation of alien children leading inexorably to the decline of the “real” America. Salvation was only possible if women realized that “upon their loins depended the future destiny of the nation.” Along the way, his portrait of perfect womanhood — “the true wife [did not seek] undue power in public life…undue control in domestic affairs…[or] privileges not her ownwas echoed 150 years later in a chilling blast from the past — the 1976 Hyde Amendment, the brainchild of that very wicked man who figured he had won the lottery when it came to oppressing women —not all women, mind you, just the ones in his (the government’s) clutches —poor women whose health and welfare and that of their children depended upon the federal health insurance program called Medicaid with one shocking omission — women were prohibited from using their Medicaid health insurance to cover the cost of an abortion.

By now you’ve probably figured out that this is no fairy tale but a nightmare come to life. The Hyde Amendment is not a law, but a rider that Congress has voted to attach to every federal funding bill since 1976. Particularly in the early years, not all votes came from the Republican side of the aisle, more Democrats than one might want to believe piled on.  In the last couple of years, the waters have parted and the democrats have come back to the side of the angels expressing their usual “outrage” at the targeting of poor women, the majority of them women of color, and that has resulted in the creation of the EACH Woman Act which would effectively send the Hyde Amendment to a well-deserved grave. With republican majorities in both houses and a republican president slavishly devoted to the whims of his anti-abortion base, the bill would need a huge influx of the right sort of democrats into Congress in 2018 on the order of a veto-proof majority. As Barbara Lee, democratic congresswoman and author of the EACH Woman Act put it “I’m not holding my breath.” 

What’s wrong with this picture? The injustice is enormous — “it is fundamentally unjust and discriminatory for the government to deny women on Medicaid the same reproductive health options as women with economic means” (Marlene Fried, National Network of Abortion Funds).  The only way to reverse this policy is for enough congress people to vote against including it as a rider on a funding bill. After all, isn’t it their job to carry out the wishes of the people who voted them into office? A Hart Research poll in 2015 found that 76% of voters agree with the statement that “politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman’s health coverage for abortion because she is poor.” In 41 years, only one bill, EACH Woman Act, has garnered even a modicum of support from the democrats — the so-called party of the people. Why is that? Why do so few people know that the amendment exists and why is there so little public and private outrage over the unfairness of punishing a group of women, 15% of all child-bearing age women, whose only crime is to be poor? They’re not the only one who feel the sting of this remorseless amendment — any woman whose health insurance is paid for by the feds — federal employees and their dependents, teenagers on CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), Washington DC residents, Peace Corps volunteers, Prisoners, and Native Americans are potential victims. 

Wait a minute. What about all those “do-gooder” organizations, metaphoric tin cups in hand, running endless fundraising campaigns under the rubric of preserving “choice?” Here’s what we found in the 2016 annual report of NARAL Pro Choice America, one of the most successful (and prosperous) of the abortion rights Mafia: “Our mission now is to fight for the America we believe in…where liberty is a mandate — to choose abortion, to make our own decisions about families. Not found in the 2016 annual report is any mention of the fight needed to make “liberty’s mandate” a reality for women who cannot afford the cost of an abortion. (Beyond NARAL’s dubious claim of responsibility for the anti-Hyde platform passed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.)   Like many women’s group’s whose “natural” constituency is upper and middle class women, NARAL has failed to make overturning Hyde a national priority. Planned Parenthood, both a fundraising organization and an abortion provider, suffers from the same myopia, concentrating on preserving abortion’s legality (Roe v. Wade) and nary a peep about the affordability issue. On January 21, 2016, the day after President Trump officially moved into the White House, women’s groups staged a historic demonstration in D.C. and in major cities all over the U.S. Since most of the attendees were middle and upper class women (and some men) the Hyde Amendment was officially MIA.  A shame really. The statistics are stunning. Since the passage of the Hyde amendment over one million women have been forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. The unintended pregnancy rate among poor women is five times the rate for higher-income women. Yet organizations like NARAL proudly point to their support for other issues —immigration reform, marriage equality, voting rights, abandoning family business when it is most needed.

Someone did finally speak out, and it happened to be the first woman to run for president for a major political party. But the question must be asked — what was behind Hillary Clinton’s public opposition to the 40-year ban on federal abortion coverage (aka Hyde Amendment)? First the declaration itself — Any right that requires you to take extraordinary measures to access it is no right at all. And not as long as we have laws on the book like the Hyde amendment making it harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.” Ho-hum not exactly a full-throated “out, out damn spot” moment although the next day in a less public forum she indicated her support for repealing Hyde and closed with the following “and actually I have for a very long time.” When?  Certainly not when as first lady she was a vocal supporter of Mother Theresa, the brains behind several global right-to-life organizations and definitely not when she chose as her running mate Tim Kaine (endorsed by NARAL and with the “very enthusiastic” support of Planned Parenthood’s President). The same Tim Kaine who repeated in several televised interviews “My voting position on abortion hasn’t really changed…I support the Hyde amendment. Even after this remarkably frank statement, NARAL’s support didn’t waver. —“We appreciate Senator Kaine’s commitment to upholding the nominee’s position on this very important issue [Hyde] although in an earlier portion of the statement admitted to being “deeply disappoint[ed] Not outraged? In fact, the NARAL’s president condones Kaine’s blatant discrimination: “I don’t think we’re in the business of thought policing. I’m okay with people having their own ideas [even President Trump?] as long as they don’t prevent other people from exercising their rights.” For sheer craven gutlessness, that really hits it out of the park.  Her support for Hillary is similarly blinkered— “Hillary has a history as a champion of reproductive freedom…She’s carried … those values at the center of her campaign. Given that Tim Kaine has promised to protect but not really champion those issues…puts more onus on her to push the mandate [abortion access].  Only a passel of middle and upper middle class women with blinders firmly fixed in place could hope to dignify their cave-in with that tortured “logic.” Kaine’s anti-abortion position goes way beyond his support of Hyde. As Virginia governor’s he pulled off an anti-abortion trifecta —passing parental notification and consent laws for teen abortions, outlawing late-term abortions and allowing state vanity plates to read “choose life.”

Main-line women’s organizations’ support of Hillary extended to her oft-repeated fealty to the legacy of President Obama. Here she is waxing eloquent on the virtues of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) — “there’s the progress we’ve made toward … putting quality, affordable health care within reach for everyone …Democrats have been trying to pass universal health care since Harry Truman’s administration. President Obama got it done.” Not if you’re poor with an unwanted pregnancy on Medicaid. Funny thing happened on the way to universal healthcare for all Americans — President Obama made a deal with the devil (abortion opponents in his own party) throwing poor women under the bus and agreed to maintain current Hyde amendment restrictions on Medicaid. Nary a peep from NARAL and Planned Parenthood (who subsequently made a $20-million-dollar contribution to the Clinton campaign). Tell you who was a little miffed. The gentlewomen at NOW (National Organization for Women) whose mission statement comes closest to rejecting Hyde (although they don’t mention it preferring a less in-your-face approach “we oppose attempts to restrict these rights [to have an abortion] through legislation …).

The good news is that calls for repeal of the Hyde amendment are becoming louder and more effective — prompting the poohbahs at the 2016 Democratic convention to approve a platform that for the first time explicitly calls on elected officials to overturn Hyde. Past democratic platforms had played it safe calling for “less necessary, more rare” and “Safe, legal and rare” abortions.” Hillary mimicked that language when she ran for the Senate in 2008. and for the democratic nomination for president in 2008. In 2016, she dropped one word: rare. The surprising news is that the pressure to get the Hyde amendment on the table and in Hillary’s list of campaign promises did not come from women’s groups (although they insist it did) that have become million dollar non-profits under the pro-choice banner. It took a new spirit, a new energy, a new will to resist. Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, director of the National Latina Institute and co-chair of All Above All — Women of color leaders have been calling for the repeal of Hyde for decades when most mainstream reproductive rights groups did not prioritize the issue.”

Is this the face of a newly reconstituted democratic party? Leadership that’s younger, hipper, all colors, ready, willing and able to learn from the mistakes, omissions, and political expediency of the older generation of leaders? One can only hope. Hyde is not the only challenge facing these committed young activists. Just the most immediate. For now, with the present administration and a one-party congress, the battle is an uphill one, the outcome far from certain. Granted republicans aren’t the only obstacles. Not all democrats are on the same page when it comes to allowing federal funding of abortions. Hyde’s backers are alive and well in both parties. Senator Joe Manchin, a confirmed DINO (democrat in name only) has labeled the effort to kill Hyde “crazy.”  And Hyde isn’t the only amendment that must go. The Helms amendment (named after the late segregationist senator Jesse Helms) is the Hyde amendment gone global — prohibiting U.S. foreign aid from being used to finance abortion services even in cases of rape.

Barbara Lee, congresswoman and longtime abortion rights supporter, summed up the hopes of all women (and men) of conscience — “The pressure has been put on us [to get rid of Hyde] by this electorate, by 18- to 30-year old, and women of color…It’s long overdue but there’s finally a critical mass.

 You can do something to put Hyde in the rear-view mirror. Call or write your elected officials. Find out where they stand on repealing Hyde. Let them know you’re “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.” No woman should be forced to have a child she doesn’t want or can’t take care of just because she’s poor. All women not only the economically privileged are entitled to the same rights. Tell your legislators if they want to keep their jobs, it’s time to start listening to the people who elected them.


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