Public Funding for Abortion Isn’t Really a Thing, But Here’s Why It Should Be

It’s important that we advocates respond to the false claim about "paying for other people’s abortions" thoughtfully, so that we don’t further normalize the idea that the government should be able to discriminate against poor women in the delivery of health-care services.

It’s important that we advocates respond to the false claim about "paying for other people’s abortions" thoughtfully, so that we don’t further normalize the idea that the government should be able to discriminate against poor women in the delivery of health-care services. Shutterstock

“Pay for your own abortion! Why should I have to pay for it?”

This is a complaint that far too many anti-choicers like to lob at those of us who have the temerity to believe that women should have control over whether and when to have children. Responding to this charge presents a sticky wicket for the forward-thinking reproductive justice advocate.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating: Must we toil away responding to an endless barrage of falsehoods fomented by fetus-first advocates who don’t concern themselves with such trifles as facts? On the other hand, it’s important that we respond to the false claim about “paying for other people’s abortions” thoughtfully, so that we don’t further normalize the idea that the government should be able to discriminate against poor women in the delivery of health-care services.

Because make no mistake: That’s what the Hyde Amendment, which celebrates its 39th legislative birthday today does. It allows the government to pick and choose which people get which health-care services based on how much money they have and how they’re insured.

In 1976, three years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman from Illinois, attached a pesky rider to a Health and Human Services appropriations bill excluding abortion from the health-care services provided to low-income people through the federal Medicaid program.

Prior to 1976, abortion care was covered under the federal Medicaid program as part of standard medical careas it should have been, because abortion is health care.

The Hyde Amendment changed all of that, just as its architect intended.

Hyde, somewhat to his credit, was perfectly forthright about the purpose of the amendment: “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.”

Unfortunately, indeed. Because the Hyde Amendment creates a multi-tiered system of health-care access, and the people on the lowest rungs of the abortion ladder—low-income women, young women, and women of color—get the short end of the insurance coverage stick.

Let’s just say that if the Hyde Amendment were the Titanic, low-income women would be drowning in steerage along with the Jack Dawsons and the rest of the hoi polloi.

Living large on the upper deck of the S.S. Hyde are wealthy, primarily white, women who don’t have a worry in the world when it comes to keeping government invaders out of their uterus. These are the women who can afford to spend several hundred dollars on an abortion. And for those elite women who live in states where abortion access has been so restricted that it’s like trying to find a Popeye’s in the Hamptons, they can afford to shell out potentially thousands of dollars in travel costs in order to travel out-of-state to access abortion care.

But life isn’t so grand for women who rely on Medicaid for their health-care services. They are denied health-care coverage simply because of their economic status, or if they happen to be employed by the government, in the military, a federal prisoner, or an Indian Health Services client. If those women want an abortion, they either have to spend money they really don’t have to cover the cost, or carry the pregnancy to term, even if they can’t afford to raise any more children. (I say “any more” because 61 percent of women who have abortions already have children contrary to the beliefs of anti-choicers, some of whom claim women are treating abortion like just another form of contraception.)

It’s unfair and it’s discriminatory.

Year after year, Congress has attached the Hyde Amendment to appropriations bills, albeit with certain exceptions. Women who are the victims of rape and incest or whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies can use their Medicaid insurance to pay for an abortion.

And with the passage of Obamacare, which excludes abortion coverage from the preventive care covered under the health reform law, the idea that there should be no public funding for abortion has become the status quo.

We have to change that.

Take the current brouhaha over Planned Parenthood. The videos alleging Planned Parenthood is embroiled in some conspiracy to deliver live babies, murder them, and harvest them for parts has abortion opponents frothing at the mouth over federal funding of the organization. Republicans have been trying to strip Planned Parenthood of nearly $500 million of federal funding, all the while riling up anti-choice advocates about taxpayer dollars being used by Planned Parenthood to, as my friend and host of Politics and Reality Radio Joshua Holland put it, “make smoothies out of toddlers.”

And the response of many reproductive rights and justice advocates has been to simply set the record straight by pointing to the pesky Hyde Amendment and proclaiming that taxpayer dollars are not used for abortion.

We need to stop saying that.

It’s difficult working in a field where you are constantly battling people who spread falsehoods with no apparent care about the truth about an organization that has provided millions of women with low-cost health care over the past century. We as advocates spend most of our time pushing back on such nonsense.

No, Planned Parenthood isn’t trafficking in fetal body parts.

No, Margaret Sanger didn’t want to eradicate Black people off the face of the earth.

No, Planned Parenthood doesn’t target Black people by setting up abortion clinics in Black neighborhoods.

It’s as if we scroll through a checklist of shit anti-choicers say about abortion, correcting falsehoods and ticking them off as we go. “Federal funds aren’t used for abortion” is simply one more item on that checklist.

But every time we say “Taxpayer dollars are not used for abortion! Gosh! Shut up!” we are normalizing the idea that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used for abortion.

Because the truth of the matter is, there should be public funding for abortion care.

Restricting Medicaid coverage of abortion forces one in four poor women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. In addition, a woman who wants to get an abortion but is denied one is more likely to fall into poverty than one who can get an abortion.

Politicians should not be in the business of discriminating against people when it comes to delivering health-care services, just because they don’t like abortion. They should not be interfering with a woman’s ability to make the health-care decision that is right for her. And politicians certainly should not be in the business of forcing poor women and women of color to carry pregnancies to term because they don’t have the money to end an unwanted pregnancy.

It’s inhumane.

When it comes to Black women specifically, the Hyde Amendment and other public funding bans at the state level are perverse.

Anti-choice politicians force Black women to carry to term pregnancies that they either don’t want or can’t afford, wielding them as a weapon in their movement’s ideological war against abortion. But later that zeal turns to disdain when Black women have to rely on government programs to raise the children they have been forced to have. Inevitably, what ends up happening is that the people who support the Hyde Amendment are the very same people who scream about abortion being Black genocide out of one side of their mouths, while complaining about welfare queens having too many children out of the other.

“I don’t want to pay for your abortion!” quickly turns into “I don’t want to pay for your kid!” and complaints about Black people wanting allegedly free stuff.

Just last week, for example, Jeb Bush resurrected the “Black people want free stuff” canard as he made an utterly laughable claim that Black people should really be voting for Republicans. Responding to a question about how the GOP could win Black voters, Bush said, “[o]ur message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”

This is not a new sentiment. Mitt Romney made similar comments in 2012 as he was fumbling through his attempt to reach out to Black voters.

This is what many conservatives think of Black people when they’re not lamenting the abortion rate in the Black community and keening about Black genocide. They think that the only reason Black people have voted for Democrats time and time again is because Democrats promise us free stuff. Free Obamaphones. Free birth control. Free health care. Free community college. Free free free.

Conservative disdain for Black people is palpable.

When it comes to Black fetuses, however, conservatives can’t seem to get enough of them.

But when conservatives force a Black woman to carry pregnancies to term, the Black fetus growing inside her will become a Black baby. And that Black baby will become a Black child, and then a Black adult. Then, far too many conservatives inevitably will stop caring and start demonizing.

The levels of police brutality in the Black community indicate their demonization tactics are working, too, as many people see Black men, women, and children as a threat.

Where is the dignity in pushing already impoverished women further into poverty by withholding coverage for abortion? Where is the dignity in forcing Black women to have children that will then be victims of state-sanctioned violence?

A woman who is already struggling to make ends meet should not have to make a decision about whether or not to end her pregnancy based on how she gets her health coverage or how much money she has. Her decision should be based on what is best for her and her family’s circumstances. Her body. Her rules.

And we as reproductive rights and justice advocates must point that out at every possible opportunity.