The Hyde Amendment at 35: Lessons for Activists

September 30th is the 35th "anniversary" of the Hyde Amendment. Hyde's legacy is that pitted women of different economic classes against each other, and resulted in a pattern of trading reproductive health care for other health coverage.

Rep. Henry Hyde

This article is cross-posted from the National Network of Abortion Funds.

Find all of our coverage on the Hyde Amendment at 35 here.

The Hyde Amendment turns 35 this month. This provision, prohibiting federal Medicaid coverage of abortion in almost all circumstances, was the beginning of the anti-abortion movement’s post-Roe, all-out effort to ban abortion. It was a gateway bill, opening the door to the flood of restrictions that today constrict a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion, forcing women to “choose” between paying for other basic necessities and having an abortion, and, in too many cases, making abortion impossible. It became the precedent for all other denials of abortion funding, and reinforces our discriminatory, two-tier health care system in which people without financial resources cannot get the care they need.

The persistence of the Hyde Amendment also created a series of disastrous roadblocks to inclusive reproductive health coverage in other legislation. For example, Congress banned abortion coverage in “The Affordable Care Act” in 2010. Compounding this specific policy loss was the profound ideological loss of normalizing the exclusion of abortion from health insurance. During the battle over health care reform, President Obama reassured those who feared that there might be an end run around Hyde by saying, “I’m pro-choice, but I think we also have the tradition in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.”

As we mark this anniversary with our continued activism, I draw several political lessons to inform our advocacy going forward.

Understand the fight we are in:  The agenda is anti-woman, especially poor women

Paradoxically, the debate over abortion is not primarily about abortion itself. Rather, as Dr. George Tiller so eloquently put it, “This battle is about the self-determination of women over the direction and course of their lives. Abortion is about women’s hopes and dreams. Abortion is a matter of survival.”

Over time the anti-abortion movement has gotten more sophisticated in its approach, arguing in recent years it opposes abortion because of the harm it does to women’s health. False claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer and causes women to suffer from post-abortion syndrome are intended to show that the anti-abortion movement cares as much about women as it does about fetuses. However, the theme of contempt and distrust for women, so clearly articulated during the original debate on the Hyde Amendment, recurs.  A recent attempt by Republicans to restrict government funding of abortion to cases of “forced” rape echoes the earlier debate where opponents claimed that “any woman who wants an abortion under Medicaid could go in and say” she has been raped, in order to get Medicaid to pay for her abortion.

Fight for what you really want

At the time the Hyde Amendment was passed, just three years after Roe v. Wade, its sponsors never thought they would succeed. The original Hyde Amendment proposal was unabashedly extreme, with no exceptions whatsoever, not even to save a woman’s life. Its sponsors were completely transparent about their goals. In 1976, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) said:

“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.”

In 1977, Rep. Hyde and other House members held out for six months, orchestrating 25 roll call votes and delaying passage of a $60 million appropriations bill, before finally accepting a few exceptions in order to get the Amendment passed. But they kept pushing for what they really wanted until they successfully eliminated all but the exception for life endangerment in 1981. Up until 1993, Congress refused Medicaid funding to women who had been raped; only women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancy had any hope of receiving financial support for an abortion through Medicaid.

This tenacity became a signature characteristic of the anti-abortion movement: the ban on so-called “partial birth abortion,” the many state-level challenges to Roe itself, and egg-as-person amendments are just a few examples of this approach. The anti-abortion movement never takes no for an answer. By drawing lines in the sand and refusing to compromise, they have successfully restricted access to abortion, mobilized their base and made significant inroads into mainstream attitudes about abortion.

Do not allow the opposition to exploit divisions

By attacking abortion access, rather than legality, the Hyde Amendment divided the abortion rights movement along lines of race and class. It provided the possibility of being “pro-choice” without supporting real access, thereby trading away the needs of low-income women and women of color. When asked why women of color were not more visible in the pro-choice movement, longtime activist and former clinic director Brenda Joyner reframed the question to ask:

“[W]here is the primarily white middle-class movement in our struggles for freedom? Where was a white middle-class movement when the Hyde Amendment took away Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women?”

These divisions have continually arisen. Sometimes, as with the Hyde Amendment, women of different economic classes are pitted against each other. And sometimes, as in the argument over whether to support a health reform bill without abortion coverage, women are in the position of having their basic needs pitted against each other – trading reproductive health care for other health coverage. Here, too, President Obama actively contributed to this conflict, saying, “My main focus is making sure that people have options of high quality care at the lowest possible price” – as if abortion isn’t part of “high-quality care” for women.

As we look towards the future, it is my hope that we will resist the fragmentation that has weakened all of our struggles for social justice. The work of the abortion Funds reminds us daily that, as Audre Lorde told us, “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” Overturning the Hyde Amendment is just one part of our goal of achieving reproductive justice for all women. It is important that we pursue a bold vision, especially in challenging times. We need this vision to mobilize our movement because, as we have seen, the arc of history does not bend towards justice all by itself – it takes all of our hands.