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Did Their Backs Hurt Your Knives?

Silhouettes of women back to back
Silhouettes of women back to back
Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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July 29, 2016

For the first-time ever, the platform of a major political party includes an explicit call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a federal law that has denied eligible poor and low-income women coverage for abortion care for nearly four decades. This has anti-abortion democrats saying they have been betrayed.

Make no mistake: the real betrayal came, 40 years ago when politicians hijacked the Medicaid bill – a law designed to make health care accessible to those who can least afford it – and turned into a vehicle to prevent as many women as possible from obtaining abortions.

As the law’s sponsor and namesake, Henry Hyde, explained in 1977, “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.”

According to Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the anti-abortion organization the National Right to Life Committee, in the past 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has more than lived up to its promise. Johnson recently bragged that “The Hyde Amendment is the most successful abortion reduction program,” estimating that it has blocked as many as 2 million women from obtaining abortions.

Indeed, in the more than three decades since Hyde became law, multiple states followed suit with copycat bans, blocking eligible women seeking abortions from receiving both state and federal Medicaid dollars. Today, 32 states and the District of Columbia exclude abortion coverage from otherwise comprehensive benefits programs. (Seventeen states, however, provide abortion coverage with state funds; four states did so voluntarily and 13 did so when their state courts determined that the exclusion of abortion coverage violated their state constitutions).

The ACLU has proudly been a part of many of those lawsuits to restore coverage and we are currently suing in Maine and Alaska (where the State has recently appealed our victory in the lower court) to ensure that a Medicaid-qualified woman in those states can use her insurance to get an abortion if she needs one.

Public insurance bans are government-imposed barriers to abortion access, that make it difficult or impossible for women to obtain abortions. The old mantra “no taxpayer funding for abortion” is not neutral, it’s tired. There is nothing “neutral” about providing comprehensive coverage for pregnancy-related care when a woman continues her pregnancy, but not when she decides to have an abortion. There is nothing “neutral” about a law that targets a woman with the least resources and deliberately coerces her into continuing a pregnancy against her will.

The millions of women who are coerced into continuing a pregnancy against their will, or who are forced to make difficult and painful decisions about giving up the essentials (like food, rent, or heat) for themselves and their families, just to save enough money to have an abortion have been and continue to be betrayed.

Withholding the benefits we provide as a nation from the people who qualify for them and need them is dangerous and wrong. So, yes, there was a betrayal. But it is low-income women who have been betrayed, not anti-abortion democrats.

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