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We’re Finally Getting A Little Closer To Repealing The Hyde Amendment

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"We’re Finally Getting A Little Closer To Repealing The Hyde Amendment"

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As Congress heads back to work this week, anti-choice lawmakers are wasting no time putting abortion access back on the chopping block. This Thursday, House Republicans will hold a hearing on the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” or HR 7, a sweeping measure to broadly restrict insurance coverage for reproductive health care. An identical bill passed the House back in 2011, and it appears that lawmakers are ready to revive the push to enact barriers to affordable abortion access.

The GOP-controlled House, which passed a national abortion ban just a few months ago, likely won’t be hesitant to approve HR 7. Republicans’ relentless efforts to block taxpayer funding for abortion have been largely successful over the past four decades, forcing the pro-choice community to constantly operate on the defensive. For nearly 40 years — almost the entire span of time that abortion has been legal — the federal Hyde Amendment has prevented low-income women from using their Medicaid coverage to help pay for abortion services. Hyde has also spawned similar restrictions for other populations — like federal employees, military personnel, federal inmates, DC residents, and Native American women — that rely on government health care.

Now, the idea that taxpayer dollars might wind up financing abortion is so distasteful to elected officials that they’ve repeatedly attacked Planned Parenthood’s state funding, claiming the nation’s “largest abortion provider” shouldn’t be allowed to get Medicaid reimbursements for serving low-income women. (So far, Texas is the only state that’s actually succeeded.) Instead of having space to argue that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with taxpayer dollars funding this aspect of reproductive health care, Planned Parenthood is stuck continuing to segregate abortion from the rest of women’s health, often left reiterating the fact that abortion represents just three percent of its overall services.

You may assume that this has created an environment in which changing the conversation, and sticking up for women’s right to access publicly-funded abortion, is impossible. But you may also be very wrong.

Activists are ready to fight

For years, there hasn’t been much momentum on this issue. As reproductive rights are being chiseled away from all angles, particularly on the state level, it just hasn’t seemed like a fight that the pro-choice community can win. It’s easier to try to hold the current ground than make a compelling case for revisiting the 37-year-old Hyde Amendment — particularly when “taxpayer funding for abortion” is a phrase that incites so much bitter controversy in the anti-choice community.

But that seems poised to change. A new coalition of reproductive justice activists, All Above All, is mobilizing to take a bold stand against the Hyde Amendment. All Above All launched last fall, and has been working to leverage grassroots and legislative partners to join its campaign. Now, going into 2014, its members are confident that the country is ready for this fight.

“I am very excited to be starting off 2014 with the kind of energy and momentum that we’re feeling from the ground right now,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, the director of public affairs for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health — one of the groups participating in the campaign — told ThinkProgress.

Inez McGuire is quick to note that opposition to the Hyde Amendment is nothing new; pro-choice advocates, and particularly women of color, have been fighting to get rid of it for decades. The difference is activists’ refusal to defer to a defensive strategy. They’ll keep taking a stand against restrictive legislation like HR 7, as well as the constant barrage of state-level legislation attacking reproductive rights, but they won’t be satisfied with stopping there.

“It’s no surprise that certain policymakers who want to restrict women’s decision making are starting off their new year with a sweeping ban on abortion coverage. Unfortunately, it’s the same old tactics,” Inez McGuire noted. “But I think what’s going to be different coming from the reproductive justice movement in 2014 is that we’re not going to stop with opposing the new bans that are being proposed…We’re also going to be dismantling the existing barriers, and the Hyde Amendment is priority number one for many of us.”

Reaching the tipping point

The recent environment surrounding reproductive rights has hardly been positive. Since 2011, state legislatures have enacted record-breaking numbers of restrictions on abortion — and even progressive policy change, like the health reform law, has given the anti-choice community an opportunity to attack abortion access. Texas’ harsh new abortion restrictions continue to provide a particularly stark example of what happens when women are denied the right to bodily autonomy.

Ironically, that’s only given more fuel to the fight against Hyde.

“The Hyde Amendment has always made the procedure effectively out of reach because of cost. Now, you see all these policies that are making the whole process of getting this health care prohibitively expensive,” Inez McGuire pointed out to ThinkProgress. “The past three years have seen an unprecedented slew of new restrictions on abortion on the state level. They’ve gone after clinics, they’ve gone after women, they’ve used racial stereotypes to try to get certain kinds of abortion bans passed — it’s just been relentless.”

Inez McGuire refers to the current policy environment as a “perfect storm” that has collided to make abortion more unaffordable than ever. The mounting barriers to reproductive health care — the state-level policies that force women to travel further to get to the nearest abortion clinic, ultimately requiring them to take more time off work and sometimes even book a hotel room in another city — are only exacerbating the pain caused by the Hyde Amendment. That’s helping activists understand that repealing Hyde is incredibly important.

Hyde is a policy that discriminates against economically disadvantaged women on Medicaid, and particularly women of color. So it’s an issue that more privileged women may not necessarily feel as invested in. But the lawmakers who are pushing for increasingly sweeping abortion restrictions are turning this into a fight that privately insured women can understand, too.

Susan Wood, an associate professor of health policy at George Washington University who’s conducted research into the impact of denying women insurance coverage for abortion, is planning on testifying against HR 7 at Thursday’s hearing. She explained to ThinkProgress that HR 7 is exactly the type of over-reaching policy that can end up resulting in a widespread outcry against abortion insurance bans.

“Because of these new attacks on abortion coverage, we have the opportunity to talk about women across the spectrum of income — whether it’s lower-income women, poor women, middle-class women who are living on a budget trying to make ends, and women who have private health insurance,” Wood said. “According to the Guttmacher Institute’s latest data, 60 percent of women of reproductive age have private health insurance, and this is now going to affect their access to high-quality health insurance that includes abortion coverage.”

A new generation leading the way

According to Inez McGuire, the new push to repeal Hyde isn’t just about the recent slew of anti-choice policies. It’s also about the new coalition of people at the forefront of the fight.

“You’ve got millenials, young people, women of color who maybe haven’t been reached by these traditional, narrow ‘choice’ messages — but who are thinking about poverty, about intersectionality, about what it means to be someone who is low-income and a single mom and living in a place without transportation in relation to reproductive rights,” she noted. “The Hyde Amendment isn’t just about reproductive justice; it’s about economic justice. That really resonates with young people, and they’re mad. And they’re organized.”

To see the evidence of that, look no further than Choice USA, another one of the groups included in All Above All’s coalition. Choice USA mobilizes young people to fight for reproductive justice, and is currently organizing around this week’s HR 7 hearing, encouraging people to contact their legislators about the need for affordable abortion services. The group expects a few hundred contacts to Congress, even though it’s limited in the number of people it will be able to contact since most colleges are still on winter break.

Choice USA has found that young people really connect to the abortion funding issue — largely because it’s often younger people who struggle to raise the money they need to have an abortion. And across the country, they’re fighting back.

“It’s easy to agree that a young person struggling to make ends meet shouldn’t have inferior health care services compared to someone with more money. That includes access to abortion care,” Allie Lahey, the president of a Choice USA chapter at Bowling Green State University, explained in a statement to ThinkProgress. Lahey is working on the ground in Ohio, where new restrictions on abortion are forcing clinics to close.

At Texas State University, Delma Catalina is serving as another Choice USA leader on this issue, working to organize an abortion fund to support women in the Lone Star State now that the state’s stringent new restrictions have taken effect. Catalina sees fighting to overturn Hyde as an extension of that work. “This semester, we’ll be raising funds to help people afford the reproductive healthcare they need, but beyond that we are going to advocate overturning the Hyde amendment and reinstating family planning funds cut in 2011,” she told ThinkProgress in a statement. “It’s time to lift the restrictions on abortion coverage so each person can make decisions based on what’s best for their circumstances.”

‘The time is right’

Taxpayer funding for abortion hasn’t historically been an issue that many lawmakers are willing to talk about. But the tide may begin to turn in 2014.

“I think the time is right,” Inez McGuire told ThinkProgress. “The policymakers to watch are not only the ones who have been champions for reproductive justice and women’s health, but also the ones who have been champions for low-income people and civil rights.” She named Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Jan Schakowsy (D-IL) as the type of politicians who have proven they’re ready to fight for disenfranchised and underrepresented populations.

And activists are starting to lay the groundwork for an even broader reach. In November, 125 representatives from across the country made a trip to Capitol Hill on behalf of All Above All to hold an education campaign about repealing the Hyde Amendment. They met with over 90 pro-choice elected officials about the cause, hoping to leverage support from economic and racial justice advocates.

There’s some evidence that the shift toward a broader vision for abortion rights — one that includes a full range of health care opportunities, as well as economic policies that allow women to determine the course of their lives — is picking up steam. Lawmakers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are beginning to introduce sweeping packages of legislation that links reproductive justice to economic justice in some of the ways that All Above All does. National politicians like House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are beginning to frame the economy in terms of women’s collective success.

Inez McGuire believes that All Above All will be able to capitalize on that growing momentum.

“What we’re seeing with the All Above All campaign is different from what we’ve seen before. It’s a campaign that I think really exemplifies so many of these exciting trends we’re starting to see around reproductive health politics,” she explained. “It’s led by and for people of color, it’s led by and for young people — and while we’re spend this week talking about how harmful HR 7 would be, we’re also making our own plans. We’re developing our own policies that encapsulate our own vision. It will be really exciting in 2014 to see the positive policies that this movement, and that our allies across the country, will be putting forward.”

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