The Grassroots Activists Who Made Affordable Abortion An Election Issue

How the Hyde Amendment entered the national conversation.

Activists rallying for abortion coverage at the Supreme Court. CREDIT: All Above All* via Flickr
Activists rallying for abortion coverage at the Supreme Court. CREDIT: All Above All* via Flickr

At a January campaign rally, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did something no other presidential candidate has done before. She called on Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment — the decades-old budget rider that blocks all federal funding from covering abortion costs, effectively blocking low-income women from accessing the procedure.

Traditionally, Hyde has had supporters on both sides of the aisle. It’s a rule that liberal lawmakers point to when their conservative counterparts erupt over government involvement in abortion access.

“Hyde has always been the third rail for politicians. No one touches it.”

“They’d say: ‘But abortion is not covered by taxpayer dollars, it’s okay,’” said Destiny Lopez, the co-director at All* Above All, an organization specifically focused on repealing the Hyde Amendment. “Hyde has always been the third rail for politicians. No one touches it.”


But Clinton’s endorsement — which was echoed shortly by fellow candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders — quickly shot the controversial idea into mainstream political conversations.

Now, getting rid of Hyde is a focal point for major national women’s reproductive health organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. And, in a historic first, the Democratic Party added an endorsement to repeal the policy to its official party platform in June.

This attention coalescing around this policy, however, is anything but spontaneous. It’s been the end goal of dozens of resilient reproductive justice organizations that have been pushing to repeal the Hyde Amendment for decades.

What gave the movement the extra push this year to capture the attention of presidential candidates and top nonprofits? According to movement leaders, it’s a combination of blood, sweat, tears — and timing.

Disenfranchised by a longstanding policy

The Hyde Amendment was put into place in 1976, just three years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.


At that time, women had already begun forming small community-level foundations to help women cover the costs of still rare, albeit legal, procedure. But Hyde — which explicitly bars federal dollars from going toward abortion, which blocks the Medicaid program from covering the procedure — only intensified this problem by specifically targeting the country’s poorest women.

By 1993, fifty abortion funds from across the country merged to create the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) to connect women across the country with needed support — especially low-income women of color relying on federal health insurance.

“Hyde was the main reason so many abortion funds were created. It’s a direct correlation with the reproductive justice movement,” said Yamani Hernandez, the director of NNAF.

“From what I can tell, our perception of what equality means has expanded.”

Hernandez’ work is unusual in that its main mission is to not exist. Ideally, NAAF wouldn’t need to financially support low-income women who want an abortion — because the procedure would be covered by the government, like any other federally-funded health care.

“We don’t want to be looked at as just a service,” she said. “We are a mobilizing unit, we have to be. In our country, we still have people deciding between whether they can put food on the table or their reproductive health.”

The Hyde Amendment doesn’t just affect low-income women on Medicaid; it also blocks abortion coverage for all people on federal insurance, including PeaceCorps and military members, veterans, and Native Americans who depend on the Indian Health Service. Some of these people don’t realize abortion isn’t covered in their health care plans until they need it most.


“A lot is lost in translation,” said All* Above All’s Lopez. “It’s my job to have these conversations with people so they know who it affects, and how.”

A new generation of women leading the way

Lopez points to the social movements that sprouted from the 2008 economic downturn, as well as growing violence against communities of color, as a catalyst for the recent momentum for repealing Hyde.

“These movements were built around communities that were tired of bearing the brunt of the policies that left them disenfranchised — the same population of people affected by Hyde,” she said. “Younger folks are now looking at these issues through a lens of equality, and politicians are paying attention. These movements have really driven it home.”

And recent movements centered around equality that have seen substantial success, like marriage equality, the Fight for 15, and transgender rights, have also helped pave the way for this discussion, said Hernandez.

“The more people heard the reality of the situation, the more they became outraged. In five years, we had created a perfect storm.”

“From what I can tell, our perception of what equality means has expanded,” she said.

And aside from the groundwork laid by other activist efforts, Kierra Johnson, the director of Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), says the current movement to repeal Hyde couldn’t have existed without the careful selection of movement leaders — leaders who reflect the women who are most impacted by the issue.

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to witness young women of color take the reins of reproductive rights organizations in the last twenty years,” Johnson said. “It’s the most visibility of women of color in leadership positions in decades.”

Johnson, who as been at URGE for 17 years, said that the real push to build political power to repeal Hyde began around six years ago. She and other leaders in the movement expanded their outreach, connecting to the generation of people most affected who had been ignored.

“People were like ‘Damn, they are finally paying attention to me,’” she said. “And other people were shocked, they had no idea the government was using the Hyde Amendment to deny women health care because they were poor.”

“The more people heard the reality of the situation, the more they became outraged. In five years, we had created a perfect storm.”

Influencing the national conversation

The storm started brewing on Capitol Hill, where reproductive justice groups lobbied lawmakers to fight against Hyde and draft bills that could finally get the amendment out of the annual budget. And it stuck. Soon, significant Democratic leaders in Congress were talking openly about the harm caused by the Hyde Amendment and introducing bills meant to tear it down.

This movement also caught the attention of national giants in reproductive health advocacy: Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Center for Reproductive Rights. Some longtime advocates were upset it took them so long to catch onto this issue, but Johnson said she welcomed their recognition.

Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards CREDIT: AP PHOTO
Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards CREDIT: AP PHOTO

“It says something that they are willing to support our cohort,” she said. “I was happy to step back and let them in.”

Planned Parenthood director Cecile Richards specifically made sure she wasn’t getting credit for the decades of work Johnson and others had put into this movement.

“We don’t have the luxury of letting any candidate of the hook.”

“The roots of this supposedly newfound boldness lie in the reproductive justice movement,” wrote Richards in a recent response to a story the Washington Post wrote about her work that focused on the push to repeal Hyde without specifically mentioning reproductive justice organizations. “It is time that the leaders of today — of the reproductive justice and women of color-led organizations — get the recognition and credit that is long overdue.”

Johnson and her fellow reproductive justice advocates haven’t slowed their work since the Clinton campaign formally announced its intention to repeal Hyde. If anything, it’s surged.

“We’re obviously thrilled it made it into the party’s platform,” said Lopez. “What we’ve done is moved into the conversation. Now, our work is to hold folks accountable.”

September 30 will mark the Hyde Amendment’s 40th anniversary. To protest its harmful legacy, URGE, All* Above All, NNAF, and other advocates and lawmakers will fill the week with demonstrations and political actions to shine a light on the way Hyde is hurting poor women. They hope presidential candidates pay attention.

“We don’t have the luxury of letting any candidate of the hook,” said Johnson. “Hyde is a problem that is 40 years old. Enough is enough.”