Many people who follow women’s issues have heard of the Hyde Amendment — a policy that restricts insurance coverage of abortion for Medicaid enrollees except when the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman or results from rape or incest. But what many do not know is that the Hyde Amendment is not “settled law,” as it is often referred to by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Rather, it is an appropriations rider, which means that it is a measure attached to a bill that funds government agencies and must be re-approved each and every year.
The Hyde policy also applies to a number of other groups of women who obtain their health insurance or health care from the federal government: disabled women who are Medicare recipients, adolescents in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Native Americans who use the Indian Health Service, federal employees, federal prisoners, Peace Corp volunteers, and residents of the District of Columbia who participate in Medicaid. These restrictions, which impose substantial hardships on over a million women and which have a disproportionate impact on women of color, also must be voted on annually by Congress.
How can these restrictions be lifted? The first step involves the President submitting a “clean budget” with no abortion riders. This signals to Congress that he disagrees with the policy and thinks it should be removed. Fortunately, the new budget released by the President on Wednesday does take a few small steps toward restoring abortion coverage for some women.
First, it includes a technical fix to the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, which funds the Peace Corps. Currently, that rider denies abortion care to Peace Corps volunteers even in the cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest. The President’s budget would bring this provision into line with virtually all other federal abortion coverage restrictions so that Peace Corps volunteers have the same health care benefits as federal employees, including the Peace Corps employees that work with these volunteers.
Second, the President’s FY2014 budget would allow DC to use it own, local funds to cover abortion care for its Medicaid enrollees. Because Medicaid is a joint federal-state program, the Hyde Amendment only restricts federal coverage of abortion but allows states to use their own funds to cover abortion if they so choose, as 15 currently do. This change in the budget acknowledges DC’s right to home rule and would put DC on equal footing with the other 50 states with respect to the Hyde Amendment.
It also would reinstate coverage that DC women had not so very long ago. President Obama successfully got the DC coverage ban lifted in 2009. But he agreed to re-impose the prohibition on the use of local funds as part of a 2011 budget deal when House Republicans threatened to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding.
President Obama should be commended for taking these steps in the right direction. But Congress should not be allowed to use these denials of abortion coverage and care as a way to influence and interfere with women’s most personal decisions. There is clearly much more work to be done until all women have the same rights regardless of their income level and until all of their pregnancy-related needs are met, including abortion care, no matter their source of insurance.