This summer, when abortion rights advocates hit the road to mobilize support for lifting the abortion restrictions currently in place for low-income women, many of the people whom they encountered were surprised to learn these laws exist in the first place. As activists stood on busy city sidewalks to gather signatures for a petition to pressure lawmakers to repeal the abortion coverage ban, passersby weren’t always sure what they were talking about.
“People are definitely uneducated about this, and when they hear about it, it really makes them angry,” Kierra Johnson, the executive director for URGE, one of the national groups that helped organize the recent bus tour, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “I think, often, Americans don’t know how far-reaching this policy goes.”
Johnson is referring to the Hyde Amendment, which marks its 38th birthday on Tuesday. That policy, a budget rider that’s been renewed in each federal spending bill since 1976, prohibits federal funding from covering abortion services. That prevents low-income women from using their Medicaid plans to pay for the procedure, and has spawned similar restrictions banning abortion coverage for government employees, Peace Corps volunteers, federal inmates, military personnel, and Native American women.
According to Johnson, once canvassers explained that the federal policy in this area ultimately means these women are denied access to affordable abortion, people were eager to sign their names to the petition. They didn’t understand why a poor woman should be forced to choose between having an abortion and paying her rent. They thought that seemed fundamentally unfair.
“With our most recent recession, people relate to living paycheck to paycheck. People understand what it means to be one paycheck away from poverty,” Johnson explained. “They see that no woman should be denied the ability to make a decision about abortion — or any other reproductive health care decision — at a time when she’s already struggling financially.”
Indeed, researchers have confirmed that women struggle to save up the money necessary to pay for an abortion out of pocket, which costs an average of $470 in the first trimester. The longer women wait as they try to scrape together the money, the more expensive the procedure becomes, and low-income women often run out of time as their pregnancies advance too far while they’re saving up. And it’s a cycle. The individuals who are denied the chance to have an accessible abortion ultimately end up slipping deeper into poverty.
There’s no question that coverage bans ultimately prevent some women — mostly, low-income and non-white individuals — from being able to legally end their pregnancies. The intentions behind the Hyde Amendment are transparent. Rep. Henry Hyde (R), the lawmaker responsible for spearheading the policy that continues to bears his name, acknowledged during a congressional debate that he wished he could ban abortion altogether, but conceded that “the only vehicle available” to him was the Medicaid bill.
“We know it’s intentional, we know it’s discriminatory, and yet each year it’s passed through the federal appropriations bill because everyone still thinks it’s just too difficult and too controversial to change it,” Karen Law, the executive director of Pro-Choice Resources, told ThinkProgress in an interview.
But now, the activists hitting the streets and gathering signatures hope to change that perception. Law’s and Johnson’s organizations are both part of All Above All, a grassroots coalition of reproductive justice advocates working to lay the groundwork for repealing Hyde. They say their internal polling has found that Americans are receptive to this policy change, so they’re pressuring elected officials to finally take a stand.
“What I have learned over the past 15 years is that Congress will change when the people force them to change,” Johnson said. “What is so exciting about this activism that we’ve started to see over the last few years is that people are angry and frustrated… And it’s already begun to translate into political change. We’ve seen city resolutions passing in a number of places — most recently in Seattle — expanding or affirming the right to Medicaid coverage of abortion.”
“You used to not be able to even say the ‘A’ word in city council,” Law added. “Before, you couldn’t even get an appointment to talk about it. Now you can.”
In addition to local lawmakers, at least five members of U.S. Congress also agreed to participate in the All Above All’s bus tour and lend their support to rolling back the Hyde Amendment. Elected officials like Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Ted Deutch (D-FL) have added their names to the petition. Advocates point to the growing momentum as proof that the issue is no longer the political “third rail” as it’s long been considered to be. They also say that a diverse collection of activists — particularly young Americans and people of color — are fired up to continue pushing forward.
“We’re trying to help lawmakers understand that this is a winning issue, and people do care about the fact that women are treated fairly and justly,” Law said. “When I’m talking to folks, even just families and friends, they’re stunned by the fact that there are some women who can’t have their abortion covered. So right now we’re building that base to really make people aware of how discriminatory this policy is.”
And if the activists working with All Above All have their way, the Hyde Amendment won’t survive to celebrate many more of its birthdays after this year.