“Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”
Those are the words of sociologist Jessica Calarco. From health care to elder care to the workforce, truer words have never been spoken. Women are the backbone of this and many other countries. Yet it is also women who often suffer the most, having their rights and bodily autonomy threatened every waking moment.
During a devastating pandemic that continues to upend everyone’s lives, and an onslaught of attacks on reproductive autonomy from states like Mississippi and Texas, people are being forced to choose between accessing an abortion—which is health care—and putting food on the table for their family. Every person, whether they live in Texas or in a low- to middle-income country, deserves to have bodily autonomy and to live with dignity and respect.
The attacks continue to mount: The Helms Amendment forbids foreign countries from using any U.S. foreign assistance to provide abortions to people who need them. The Hyde Amendment restricts abortion coverage for those enrolled in Medicaid or who receive their insurance through the federal government, except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. And just last month, the Mississippi attorney general called on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and strip away the right to have an abortion at all.
We remember the stories of friends and family, incredible women and girls, who were forced to turn to dangerous measures to obtain an abortion before Roe. For some of us, they are more than just stories. Let’s be clear: Women in the United States are not going back.
For those who rely on Medicaid or who are serving our country in the military, the Hyde Amendment denies them insurance coverage for this health-care service. That is why we introduced the EACH Act (HR 2234), to reverse the Hyde Amendment and related abortion coverage restrictions so that each of us, however much we make, can get abortion care when we need it. And in large part because of the Helms Amendment, and the environment it creates where caregivers fear even uttering the word abortion, an estimated 35 million abortions take place in unsafe conditions each year. The law has been deadly in poor and war-torn countries where people are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and unintended and unwanted pregnancies. Recent data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that repealing the Helms Amendment would prevent 19 million unsafe abortions around the world each year.
This is why we introduced the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act (HR 1670), to permanently repeal the Helms Amendment. We know the harms the Helms and Hyde amendments cause, and that is why we continue to fight and why both bills are so strongly supported by over 165 members of Congress.
The combination of all these attempts to strip rights from pregnant people is why last week was particularly historic. For the first time in history—thanks to the excellent leadership of Chair Rosa DeLauro and our hard work—the House Appropriations Committee advanced bills without the Helms and Hyde amendments, and they passed on the House floor.
Time and time again, anti-abortion politicians have claimed that including these discriminatory abortion bans in legislation is about their conscience. No matter how they feel about abortion, politicians shouldn’t deny someone access to health care because of their insurance coverage or where they live. As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent negative maternal health outcomes.
Instead, we have archaic language that creates an arbitrary line between abortion and all other health-care services, limiting access to critical care, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. It is plain wrong for the United States to force a health-care provider in another country to choose between limiting the care they can give to patients and keeping critical funding.
This is a watershed moment and a time to reckon with the question of how serious we are about racial and reproductive justice worldwide. The pandemic laid bare the disparities in this country and abroad: from health care and vaccine access to being forced out of the workforce due to the pandemic, women, and particularly women of color, have been disproportionately affected by the gaps in vital U.S. policies. To vote for appropriations bills free of harmful, discriminatory abortion bans is to show true commitment to the backbone of this country: women.
The time has come and this momentum must continue, and we call on our colleagues in the U.S. Senate to pass appropriations bills free of Hyde and Helms and all other abortion restriction riders. Congress must also act quickly to pass the EACH Act and the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. Doing so is a critical step toward achieving reproductive and economic freedom and equity for millions worldwide. The time is now!
Rep. Jan Schakowsky represents Illinois’ 9th District and is the Lead of Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus’s Providers and Clinics Task Force. Rep. Schakowsky is the lead sponsor of the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act (HR 1670).
Rep. Barbara Lee is the co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus and sits on the subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations for Appropriations.