30 Years is Enough

By Louise Melling
Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, a measure excluding abortion from the list of comprehensive health services provided to low-income women on Medicaid. Under Hyde, a poor woman can rely on Medicaid to absorb health care costs associated with carrying a pregnancy to term; however, if she decides instead to end a pregnancy, with a few rare exceptions, coverage is denied. The result: women already struggling with scant resources are often forced to risk their health or the health of their families when faced with an unintended pregnancy.

Coming just three years after Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the Hyde Amendment was one of the first restrictions on abortion. Since then, Congress has used every available avenue to restrict abortion while turning a blind eye to issues of unintended pregnancy. Anti-abortion lawmakers restrict access to abortion, while failing to make contraceptive coverage available. This hypocrisy disproportionately affects – and harms – poor women.

The United States is failing dismally when it comes to preventing pregnancy. Each year almost half of all pregnancies are unintended, a rate vastly higher than our counterparts in Western Europe, and researchers warn that at the current rate, nearly half of all American women will face an unplanned pregnancy in their lifetimes. Although Congress has allotted money to provide poor women with publicly funded contraceptive services through the Title X program, there has been little effort over the years to ensure that funding for this program continues to meet the need for services. In fact, between 2000 and 2004 the number of women needing publicly funded contraception grew by more than one million.

Americans understand the importance of contraceptive services even if anti-abortion lawmakers don't. Yet Congress continues to enact policies that fail to ensure that everyone – rich or poor – can obtain the contraceptive services they need to reliably prevent unintended pregnancies. Since 1994, according to a recent Guttmacher Institute report, more than half the states have either reduced or held stagnant funding for family planning.

And so we return to the Hyde Amendment. Anti-abortion lawmakers, so quick 30 years ago to place obstacles in the way of poor women seeking abortion, continue to be unresponsive when it comes to helping these same women obtain abortions or prevent unintended pregnancies. It is time for the rest of us to say enough is enough. Let's enact policies that make helping women prevent unintended pregnancy a national priority. And let's enact policies that provide poor women with health care coverage – no matter if they decide to continue a pregnancy or if they decide to end it. Let's respect the rights and health of poor women and end thirty years of bad public health policy. It is time to champion commonsense and compassionate policies that ensure all women – regardless of income level – can get the reproductive health care they need.

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