On Tuesday, the Senate failed to advance a bipartisan bill aimed at aiding human trafficking victims, thanks to a bitter political fight over abortion language in the bill that has brought Congress to a standstill on an issue that wasn’t supposed to spark this type of gridlock. At issue is decades-old language about abortion funding that’s shaped U.S. policy in this area ever since Roe v. Wade.
Until last week, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 had plenty of supporters on both sides of the aisle, and was expected to easily pass Congress. But it’s recently been stalled due to a conflict over an abortion-related provision that Democrats didn’t initially realize was included in the legislation.
The fight is threatening to derail issues outside of human trafficking, too. This weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the dispute may hold up the confirmation vote for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, who has been waiting months to take up her new position. McConnell suggested that “we need to finish up this human-trafficking bill” before turning to Lynch’s confirmation.
The clause in question is modeled after the Hyde Amendment, the federal law that has restricted public funding for abortion procedures for the past several decades. Under Hyde, the Medicaid program can’t use federal dollars to finance abortions, essentially cutting off low-income women’s insurance coverage for this type of reproductive care. As it’s currently written, the anti-trafficking bill, which seeks to create a new fund to financially assist victims, would be subject to the same abortion restrictions.
Democrats say they won’t approve the human trafficking measure unless that language is removed, while Republicans say they’re confused about why a routine provision that’s been federal law for so many years is sparking controversy. The two parties are at an impasse — and beleaguered observers have been left wondering whether Congress can ever get anything done.
A lot of people are confused about why Hyde-style language is causing a fight. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune argues that Democrats shouldn’t be so outraged at an abortion policy that’s “been part of federal law since 1976 and mostly affects Medicaid recipients.” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has a history of voting pro-choice, lamented that he wishes “we hadn’t junked that bill up with abortion politics.”
But Democratic staffers argue that passing the anti-trafficking bill as it’s written could amount to an expansion of the harmful policies stemming from Hyde. While the Hyde Amendment restricts taxpayer funds, the human trafficking measure would restrict fees and fines, which Democrats say goes beyond the initial scope of the abortion coverage ban. They’re also concerned about the fact that the abortion restrictions in the trafficking bill would be permanent, while the Hyde Amendment must be re-approved each year during the budget appropriations process.
Reproductive rights advocates agree. “Downplaying the real life and devastating impact of the abortion coverage restrictions to the human trafficking bill is deceitful and factually wrong,” Kate Stewart, the vice president for public affairs for Advocates for Youth, told ThinkProgress via email. “Make no mistake, this restriction would greatly expand Hyde’s reach.”
And more broadly, abortion rights proponents are hardly reconciled to the Hyde Amendment, which has spawned similar restrictions banning abortion coverage for government employees, Peace Corps volunteers, federal inmates, military personnel, and Native American women. Although it’s often difficult to garner enough political support to push for expanding taxpayer funding for abortion, which is such a contentious issue among social conservatives, Democrats have been trying to get rid of Hyde for years.
They got closest to achieving that goal in 1993, with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Restoring low-income women’s access to abortion coverage was one of President Clinton’s campaign promises, something that was hailed as a “sea change” in abortion politics at the time. But Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), the author of the long-standing provision, rallied enough anti-abortion Democrats to help him put his amendment back in the appropriations bill.
Since then, insurance restrictions on abortion have become even more entrenched, partially because Democrats made concessions to pass the Affordable Care Act that paved the way for similar coverage bans in the private market. In turn, the economic divide has deepened between the women who can afford an abortion and the women who are priced out of their reproductive health care — largely, low-income women of color who can’t scrape together the money to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for a procedure their insurance won’t cover.
Over the past several years, as Republicans swept state legislatures and enacted a record-breaking number of new abortion restrictions, the impact of Hyde has come into even sharper focus. According to the members of All Above All, a grassroots coalition of reproductive justice groups working to build support for repealing the Hyde Amendment, the recent legislative push has created a “perfect storm” that illustrates exactly how unaffordable abortion services can be. People are getting angry. Activists working in this space say that young Americans in particular are starting to think about Hyde-style restrictions in the context of economic and racial justice.
“I think, often, Americans don’t know how far-reaching this policy goes,” Kierra Johnson, the executive director for URGE, one of the national groups involved with All Above All, told ThinkProgress last fall. “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.”
Local lawmakers in a few cities have started to enact resolutions affirming the right to Medicaid coverage of abortion. Several members of Congress have officially endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, signing on to All Above All’s recent petition asserting that “all women should have equal ability to make their own decisions about abortion even if they are poor.” Advocates like Johnson have also been lobbying on the Hill, pushing for potential federal legislation aimed at Hyde.
It perhaps makes sense, then, that those individuals are balking at the potential of another bill that may reinforce the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions. Although the language may not be anything new, including it in the trafficking bill likely feels like a big step backwards — particularly as reproductive rights groups are trying their best to take a new, more proactive approach to abortion rights.
“I know there are a whole lot of us who are going to fight hard against any attempt to expand the Hyde Amendment and permanently impact women’s health,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), one of the fiercest proponents of abortion rights in the Senate, said last week when the controversy over the human trafficking measure first erupted.
Other pro-choice Americans, particularly those who are starting to feel fatigued by never-ending gridlock in the halls of Congress, may not feel quite as strongly about this particular political fight. Chipping away at financial assistance for abortion services doesn’t tend to spark as much outrage as other types of more explicit restrictions, like outright bans on the procedure.
But, in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, URGE’s Johnson said this ultimately fits into a pattern of Congress attempting to interfere with women’s abortion decisions to “find new ways to make it unaffordable and unavailable at any opportunity.” According to her, “It’s time to stop the sneak attacks on our health care.”