Tuesday marks the 38th year that the Hyde Amendment — which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services except in the cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening situations — has been in effect. This anniversary is a continual reminder of the work that voters and elected officials have to do to ensure that our laws enable the rights of the most vulnerable, especially when we have the existing resources to do so.
Under Hyde, only seventeen states currently use their own public funds to cover abortion services for low-income women on Medicaid. All others choose not to allocate dollars from their state budgets to ensure that women have this legal, and often medically necessary, service.
Opponents of the Hyde Amendment argue that, aside from personal positions on abortion, our government should ensure that women and families have the full range of reproductive health services available to them regardless of their source of insurance. Ensuring that women can make a private healthcare decisions with public dollars is in keeping with the American legacy of progressive values.
Our history is filled with examples of how withholding existing resources from vulnerable communities harms their ability to make decisions about their lives and strengthen their families’ economic opportunities. The country has also continually made strides to enact legislation to remedy those disparities.
In 1938, for example, the passage of the Federal Labor Standards Act institutionalized the eight-hour work day and created the 40-hour work week; established a federal minimum wage of $.25 a day; and prohibited child labor. Opponents saw the limited production hours and increased wages as corporation killers, while proponents of child labor feared that prohibiting the work of the two million children counted as “gainfully employed” in the 1910 census would cripple American agriculture as 72 percent of children worked on farms. Ultimately, however, President Roosevelt signed more than 120 bills that established dignity and rights for the individual worker and contributed to the financial security of families.
Nearly three decades later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; required equal access to public places and employment; and enforced the desegregation of schools and the right to vote. Prior to its signing, the nation at large was forced to deal with the harsh reality of segregation. While 1963 marked the historic March on Washington, it was also the year when civil rights leaders Medger Evers and William Moore were killed, the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, and violent clashes between the police and civil rights protesters — many of whom were children — took place on national television. The federal government had to step in to affirm the human rights of the African American community in the absence of political will at the local level. While it didn’t end discrimination altogether, it did put into law one of many progressive steps towards equality for all by ensuring that everyone had access to existing services and resources.
Voting rights were the issue in 1965. Despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discriminatory practices regarding voter registration, African Americans were consistently, and sometimes violently, prevented from registering to vote. As citizens and taxpayers, African Americans were denied access to this right due to the contempt of local government. Ultimately, the federal government ensured the intent and promise of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by passing the Voting Rights Act to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, had a the right to make a private decision — the right to vote.
In all three of these examples, there were vulnerable communities made up of qualified and capable individuals seeking to make important private decisions to benefit their lives. In these instances, the federal government played its most important function: Enabling the rights of its citizens. This function means fulfilling an obligation through public policy, and ultimately public funds, to ensure that private decision making and self-determination can take place.
So as we consider this anniversary, it’s an opportunity to seriously consider our role, as voters and as taxpayers, in holding both the federal and state governments accountable when denying low-income women this legal right to an affordable abortion. Low-income women don’t deserve fewer benefits simply because of their source of insurance. They are the most qualified and able to make the best health care decision for themselves and their families, since they are the only ones who truly understand the complexities of their lives.
Advocating to repeal Hyde and all its successors at the federal and state level would ensure that all women have a real opportunity to protect their health and obtain economic security, and would fall in line with the United States’ history of taking steps to ensure these rights for all of its citizens.