Remembering Rosie: We Will Not Forget You

The Hyde Amendment killed Rosie Jiménez. She died thirty years ago today, and we remember her because she has become a symbol of all women and girls everywhere who are denied their human right to safe, legal, funded, and accessible abortion care.

Her face has haunted me for thirty years.

I've only seen one photograph of Rosaura "Rosie" Jiménez. It shows a pretty young woman with long, dark hair, dark eyes, a mysterious smile, and a striped blouse. To me, she looks very pleased about something. I wonder what Rosie was thinking and feeling the day that photo was taken. I am not sure I will ever know.

What we do know is that Rosie was a young Chicana living in McAllen, Texas, in the late 1970s. The daughter of migrant farm-workers, she was a single mother raising her 5-year-old daughter and also a scholarship student six months away from her teaching credential. She had her entire future ahead of her, and she looked forward to completing her education so that she could leave field and factory work for opportunities far more promising. Rosie realized that she was pregnant, and, too poor to pay for a safe and legal procedure at a clinic, she sought out a cheaper, unsafe abortion, and suffered a painful death from an infection that ravaged her body. So committed was she to a better future for herself and her child that a $700 scholarship check was found in her purse when she died. She could have used her college money for safe abortion care at a clinic, but she was saving it for her education–her passport out of poverty. Rosie gambled with her life and tragically lost. She became the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment which, in 1977, cut off Medicaid funding for safe abortion care to women on public assistance.

The hateful and oppressive Hyde Amendment killed Rosie Jiménez. She died on October 3, 1977, at the age of 27. We remember her because she has become a symbol–a human face–of all women and girls everywhere who are denied their human right to safe, legal, funded, and accessible abortion care.

Since 1995, the Abortion Access Project has organized Rosie Jiménez Day on October 3 and sponsored a series of events and speak-outs every October-October is National Abortion Access Action Month- in remembrance of Rosie.

It's been thirty years now since Rosie Jiménez died. So much has changed in our world. Tragically, what has not changed is that abortion as a human right for women is still debated and denied, and the Hyde Amendment still exists. It still violates women's human rights to life, equality, privacy, non-discrimination, and health and it still unjustly bans abortion funding for low-income women. These women are still prevented from accessing abortion, one of the safest and most important procedures a woman can have and a critical choice that all women should be able to have.

A recent report by the National Network of Abortion Funds called "Abortion Funding: A Matter of Justice" passionately states:

Abortion access is a matter of justice. The Hyde Amendment and subsequent state bans on Medicaid funding deny abortion rights and reproductive freedom to some of the most disadvantaged women in our society-those who depend on the government for their health care. Given the racial distribution of poverty in the United States, funding bans discriminate against women of color…In addition, federal funding bans unfairly penalize immigrants, disabled women, Native American women receiving care from Indian Health Services, women in the military, and women in prison. Young women, who tend to have few financial resources of their own, are also especially burdened by policies that deny abortion funding.

In addition, Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute writes in "The Heart of the Matter: Public Funding of Abortion for Poor Women in the United States:"

Poor women…Medicaid enrollees who are the poorest of poor Americans…have become pawns in the congressional debate over abortion since abortion became legal nationwide in 1973. For opponents of abortion, public funding has been a proxy for overturning Roe. As recently retired Representative Henry Hyde, long time anti-choice Republican member of Congress from Illinois for whom the amendment is named, told his colleagues during a congressional debate over Medicaid funding in 1977:

‘I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody from having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the…Medicaid bill.'

Since then, the Hyde Amendment has passed every year as part of the federal appropriations budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. This is a national disgrace that makes scapegoats out of poor women, young women, and women of color–the most vulnerable women in our country. Hey, says Hyde and his buddies, if you can't take away the rights of all women, let's just take away the right of the most marginalized.

It's may be hard to believe–but perhaps not, given the numerous successful strategies of the anti-choice movement–but thirty years of the pain, oppression, and discrimination caused by the Hyde Amendment has actually been supported and upheld by a 1980 Supreme Court decision, Harris v. McRae. Boonstra further states that the Harris case decided that the restrictions of the Hyde Amendment did not violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution, declaring that "a woman's freedom of choice does not carry with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices."

Further, Boonstra indicates that the decision further proclaimed that the federal government is entitled to choose to encourage childbirth over abortion by paying for childbirth, but denying abortion funding. "According to the Court, because the government did not cause women to be poor, it is not obligated to level the playing field for poor women: ‘Although government may not place obstacles in the path of a woman's exercise of her freedom of choice, it need not remove those not of its own creation, and indigency falls within the latter category.' "So let's get this clear. It's not the government's fault that women are poor (it's not?), and even though abortion is legal, the government is not required to make true access to abortion care a reality. But it's constitutional to pay for childbirth and not abortion and, in so doing, deny women true reproductive choice and justice.

What all of this sexist and racist legal discussion (I refuse to call it an analysis) results in is that 32 states are able to ban the use of state Medicaid for abortion. They are legally required to provide coverage in the cases of a woman's life endangerment, rape, and incest, but very rarely do so. One state theoretically provides coverage in cases of life endangerment, but that reality is also far different. Seventeen states elect to use state Medicaid monies to pay for women's safe abortion care.

What does this mean for women's lives and rights in 2007 America? The cost of a first-trimester abortion can be more than a poverty-level family lives on in a month. Low-income women who struggle to raise the money for an abortion do so at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. They forgo food, risk eviction, and pawn their possessions as they attempt to raise money for an abortion. Some are forced to continue the pregnancy (the National Network of Abortion Funds states that as many as one in three low-income women who would have had an abortion if the procedure were covered by Medicaid are instead compelled to carry the pregnancy to term), abandon their education, and stay trapped in poverty–which were Rose Jiménez's worst fears. In a sad twist of irony, as poor women attempt to raise money for their abortions, Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute reports that they are often delayed by an average of three weeks, often pushing them into a second trimester abortion procedure that may take longer to perform, and that costs more.

Abortion access is an important matter of racial justice as well as economic justice and women's rights. To assure justice and equality for all women, the National Network of Abortion Funds has instituted a pro-funding campaign "Hyde: 30 Years is Enough! Fund abortion. Protect dignity and justice for women." And the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health is calling for women's stories to learn more about how the Hyde Amendment negatively affects women in the Latina community and to break the silence around abortion for Latinas.

Legal abortion is essentially illegal for millions of women in the US. If there is no clinic in your community (87% of US counties do not have an abortion provider) , if you can't pay for it, if you can't get one, then what is a pregnant low-income women supposed to do?

Rosie Jiménez's fate is a terrifying answer. How many more tragic stories such as Rosie's do we have to endure until this reproductive health crime against so many women finally ends?

Read more about the challenges faced by abortion funds, and hear from abortion fund staffers themselves, in Andrea Lynch's "Abortion Funds: Putting Women's Needs at the Center."