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Members Of Congress Introduce Groundbreaking Bill To Help More Women Afford Abortion

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

A group of U.S. congressmembers — led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) — introduced a landmark bill on Wednesday seeking to ensure that abortion services are more accessible to all women, regardless of their economic means to pay for the cost of the procedure themselves.

The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act would restore insurance coverage for abortion services for women who rely on the government for their health care. It would also prevent private insurance companies from dropping coverage for abortion.

Effectively, the legislation seeks to undo the Hyde Amendment, a policy dating back nearly four decades that bans taxpayer funding for abortion services. Under Hyde, government programs like Medicaid can’t use federal dollars to pay for abortions, which cuts off low-income women’s insurance benefits for this type of reproductive care. “It is groundbreaking,” Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, one of the groups that has been lobbying against this policy for years, told ThinkProgress. “I was born in 1976, so the Hyde Amendment has been around as long as I have. And now we have champions who are standing up and saying: Enough.”

A wide range of health-focused organizations — including Planned Parenthood, Physicians for Reproductive Health, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Abortion Federation, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the Center for Reproductive Rights — praised the effort to roll back Hyde, releasing statements on Wednesday pointing out that policy harms some of the most economically vulnerable women in the country.

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Hyde is a budget rider that’s been renewed in each federal spending bill since the year that González-Rojas was born. It takes its name from Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), a fervent abortion opponent who was explicit about his intentions when he first advocated for this provision. “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman,” Hyde said during a congressional debate over the issue in 1977. “Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the… Medicaid bill.”

The GOP congressman was successful. 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 — ensures that millions of low-income Americans are forced to shoulder the entire out-of-pocket cost of ending a pregnancy.

It’s not hard to see the far-reaching consequences of this policy. A large body of research has confirmed that low-income women struggle to afford abortion, which can cost more than one thousand dollars when factoring in transportation to a clinic. In fact, low-income women who want to end a pregnancy often can’t get an abortion at all because it takes them too long to save up the money for it — and, when they go on to give birth, they’re at even greater risk of slipping deeper into poverty.

Over the past several years, there’s been a renewed grassroots push to educate Americans about the harmful effects of the Hyde Amendment and convince U.S. lawmakers to finally revisit the decades-old abortion coverage restriction.

In 2013, dozens of reproductive rights and justice organizations came together to form the All Above All coalition, whose mission is to “build support for lifting the bans that deny abortion coverage” and “restore public insurance coverage so that every woman, however much she makes, can get affordable, safe abortion care when she needs it.”

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Last summer, activists involved with All Above All hit the road, driving across the country to mobilize support for repealing Hyde and collect signatures on a petition pressuring U.S. representatives to take action. They canvassed the streets to try to talk to Americans about the issue of insurance coverage for abortion. Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the reproductive justice organization URGE and one of the advocates who participated in that road trip, says she was “pleasantly surprised” about how many strangers were willing to have a conversation about making abortion more affordable for low-income women.

“People really believe that it is not anybody’s place to decide for someone else whether they should get an abortion,” Johnson recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Overwhelmingly, there is support for repealing the Hyde Amendment. I think the American people have been ready for a long time — now, our politicians can take action, and that’s really exciting.”

Lee echoed those sentiments when she announced the introduction of the EACH Woman Act on Wednesday. “Regardless of how someone personally feels about abortion, none of us, especially elected officials, should be interfering with a woman’s right to make her own health care decision just because she is poor,” Lee said in a statement.

Obviously, the bill’s chances of advancing in a GOP-controlled Congress are incredibly slim, but the legislation’s introduction helps bolster a movement that’s been steadily leveraging public support. According to recent polling conducted by Hart Research, about 86 percent of voters agree that “politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman’s health coverage because she is poor.” Previous polling from Undem and Vox found that 62 percent of Americans agree that “women should have access to safe and affordable abortion care.”

“It’s definitely been an uphill climb,” González-Rojas said. “But it’s a strong grassroots effort, and a movement really by and for young people and people of color.” She noted that, in addition to lining up several congressional members in support, All Above All has collected thousands of petition signatures.

Johnson argued that the legislative push to finally repeal the Hyde Amendment represents where the movement for reproductive health is headed: Toward proactive efforts to meaningfully expand access to abortion, after years of weathering relentless attacks on the state and federal levels. Over the past five years, state lawmakers have passed nearly 300 separate provisions to restrict abortion, with no clear end in sight.

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“Young people, people of color, and people who care about civil and human rights are tired of just playing defense,” Johnson said. “They want a vision of real-life justice.”