For 37 Years, Reproductive Rights Have Been Unaffordable for Women of Color

On the 37th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, we call on our elected officials to remove restrictions on abortion coverage and help finally fulfill the promise of Roe for women of color.

The federal Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women and Families Act would lift current barriers lawful immigrants face in accessing affordable health insurance. Healthcare via Shutterstock

Monday marks the 37th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment. As women of color leaders, we have long decried the singular focus of many of our allies on abortion rights. For Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black, and Latina women, the struggle for reproductive freedom is not just about rights; it is about justice.

The Hyde Amendment violates principles of racial and economic justice by denying access to abortion services and, in effect, creating barriers to health equity. This injury is heaped upon existing injustices: Women of color are more likely to live in poverty, and more likely to need an abortion. The result? Women who are already struggling are forced to wait longer into pregnancy before they can make and pay for an appointment, families are thrown into financial distress, and one in four Medicaid-qualified women who seek an abortion is forced to carry her pregnancy to term, against her will and better judgment.

We cannot be content with the legally protected right to abortion when it rings hollow for so many women in our communities. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, conservative politicians moved quickly to deny that very right to the women in greatest need, and they continue to do so today. As former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) stated, “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.” Hyde and his supporters targeted the most vulnerable women by banning Medicaid coverage. This restriction, called the Hyde Amendment, is renewed in appropriations bills again and again, every year.

It’s time for our legislators to step up and put an end to it.

The women who birthed the reproductive justice movement knew that the right to abortion means nothing if you cannot pay for it. By making abortion too costly to afford, Hyde undermines our rights and interferes with the personal decision making of 15 percent of the U.S. population—the number of women ensured through Medicaid. This pattern of undermining legal protection is familiar to us. Indeed, decades after civil rights laws were passed, and as recently as the 2012 elections, people of color continue to face voter suppression, high poverty rates, employment discrimination, and lack of access to affordable health care.

Our communities do not need yet another barrier to attaining good health and bodily autonomy. We already face grave health inequities, including high rates of cervical cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and maternal mortality. Due to disparities in access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex education, Latinas, Black women, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women all face barriers to attaining quality pregnancy-related care, including prenatal care and abortion services.

Bans on abortion coverage only add to these challenges. A woman’s enrollment in Medicaid should not prevent her from seeing a licensed, quality health provider and receiving safe care. A woman who is denied an abortion is three times more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who is able to get the care she needs. An even graver consequence of Hyde is that a woman desperate to end a pregnancy, but unable to afford an abortion from a legitimate provider, may be driven to an unsafe, back-alley procedure.

At the heart of the reproductive justice framework, which women of color created in the 1990s, is the knowledge that true justice will only come when all of our identities and circumstances as marginalized persons are accounted for. Decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child must be left to a woman, with the counsel of her support network and her health-care provider. Women’s decisions should not be interfered with by politicians using the power of the purse.

On the 37th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, we call on our elected officials to remove restrictions on abortion coverage and help finally fulfill the promise of Roe for women of color. We stand on the road to justice—it’s time to walk forward.