Republican leadership is ending the 114th Congress much the way it began, by ignoring widespread public pleas to end the violent policing that killed over a thousand people last year and deciding instead to push for yet more abortion restrictions.
Meanwhile, the first legislation introduced this session was the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” Its sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) used his role as chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice last month to call committee members and witnesses during a congressional recess for a hearing on “The Ultimate Civil Right: Examining the Hyde Amendment and the ‘Born Alive’ Infants Protection Act.”
The vast majority of voters back the reproductive justice advocates who are working to end the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care. Yet, Franks and other anti-abortion legislators marked the policy’s 40th anniversary by engaging in a sham hearing: an attempt by Franks to force a vote on the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which would outlaw the already illegal practice of killing a baby after it has been delivered.
The committee called three anti-abortion witnesses: Gianna Jessen, an “abortion survivor,” Genevieve Plaster of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, and Arina Grossu of the Family Research Council, a group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist list. The only opposition witness was Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity and steering committee member of the All* Above All campaign to end coverage bans on abortion. It was to Johnson — the only Black witness called — that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) graphically and incorrectly described an abortion procedure, substituting a puppy for a baby.
Johnson stated that she “couldn’t speak to what’s considered a crime with puppies,” but that she “could also talk to you about the research and the anecdotal information I have about Black communities….” She was unable to complete that or subsequent sentences due to King’s interruptions, despite his having expressed concern about the disproportionate number of Black fetuses “killed” since Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion in 1973. Invoking the myth of “Black genocide” and false narratives around Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, King and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) claimed to care deeply about Black families, saying overtly that abortion was a plot to perpetrate great harm on communities of color. Of course, abortion has actually existed as long as pregnancy. And communities of color, young people, immigrants, undocumented people and the poor are disproportionately in need of abortion care as resources have often been systematically withheld from them.
The exchange between King and Johnson happened just days after the murders of 13-year-old Tyre King, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher and 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott. It can seem, as Seattle-based writer Ijeoma Oluo wrote recently, that there is “Every Day a Funeral” in the Black community due to violent policing. The Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, according to its website, has “jurisdiction over matters relating to the administration of justice in federal courts, administrative bodies, and law enforcement agencies.” Why aren’t its members addressing police violence, rather than further restricting access to reproductive health care?
Monica Simpson, executive director of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong, watched the hearing as protests were unfolding in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was clear, she told Truthout, that legislators were simply feigning concern for Black communities.
“As a Black woman from North Carolina, I am deeply hurt by the cynical political opportunism on display in today’s hearing,” Simpson said. “Black women, Black men, and Black children are being killed in the streets by police, right now. This is not theoretical, this is the brutal reality of our lives every day. To invoke a pretended concern for the safety of Black children as justification to take away health care from Black women is exploitation, pure and simple.”
Coming away from the hearing, Johnson told Truthout that she’ll be keeping an eye out for whether the narratives and research she shared will be put to use addressing issues of broad concern to Black communities.
“I was excited to see such renewed interest among these politicians about the Black community,” Johnson told Truthout, with a note of incredulity. “I will be anticipating their policy proposals to address Black maternal mortality rates, lack of affordable child care, income inequality and police violence.”
In her work with SisterSong, Simpson stresses the interconnectedness of these issues — and the ways in which reproductive justice intersects with police violence in particular. In a statement following Scott’s murder, Simpson underscored the importance of solidarity between these movements.
“We have fought back against blatant racist attacks on our reproductive freedom,” said Simpson. “We have joined forces across movements to ensure that families have what they need to survive and thrive without fear. And now we are on the front lines with those leading the fight against police violence. We do this because we understand that the system of white supremacy impacts our families, our communities and our lives.”
Legislators expressing sentiments similar to Simpson’s were also present for the hearing. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) submitted a written statement, speaking clearly about who is most affected by policies like Hyde and the proposed “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.”
“More than half of the women subject to the Hyde Amendment are women of color. Thirty percent of Black women and 24 percent of Hispanic women aged 15 to 44 are enrolled in Medicaid, compared with 14 percent of white women,” said Lee. “We also know that a woman who wants to get an abortion, but is denied, is more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who is able to access one. Let me be clear. Regardless of her zip code, her employer, or her income, women should have EQUAL access to the full range of reproductive health services, including abortion.”
In order to end 40 years of discrimination under Hyde and other insurance coverage and federal funding bans, Lee introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or EACH Woman Act, last summer. The bill now has 124 co-sponsors. In a press call about what’s next for her legislation, Lee described Hyde as having “emboldened anti-choice activists” which led to the passage of 334 new restrictions between 2011 and 2016.
“Politicians have no business interfering with a woman’s personal health care decisions just because of her income,” Lee said. “It’s outrageous and clearly targeted at those who Republicans believe are really politically expendable — women of color, low-income women and students.”
EACH Woman Act co-sponsor Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), who was also on the press call, agreed, referencing the extremist positions of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence (who served in the House before becoming governor of Indiana).
“Donald Trump issued a statement a while ago to make the Hyde Amendment permanent and we know that Mike Pence introduced legislation to amend the exceptions to Hyde to make sure that rape was ‘forcible,’ so that even the exceptions — rape, incest and for the life of the mother — have been challenged,” said Schakowsky, calling out the GOP presidential contenders for not believing in any exceptions to Hyde.
“We have seen even those exceptions [to rape and incest] being challenged over time,” she continued. “And so these kinds of analogies [comparing women and their babies to dogs and puppies], which are so incredibly insulting and demeaning to women, are the kinds of things that have been emerging lately. It’s just time to say ‘absolutely no!’ We think the women of this country and many, many men would agree with that.”
New polling done in 11 battleground states supports Schakowsky’s contention that the Hyde Amendment should be repealed.
A full 62 percent of battleground voters (including in coveted states like Ohio) agree with the statement: “We do not always know a woman’s circumstances — we’re not in her shoes. When Medicaid covers pregnancy care but withholds coverage for abortion, we’re taking away a low-income woman’s ability to make important personal decisions based on what is best for her circumstances.”
Battleground polling matches national polling from last year almost exactly on public funding for abortion care. Seventy-two percent overall — 86 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of self-identified Independents, and 59 percent of Republicans — agree that “As long as abortion is legal, the amount of money a woman has or doesn’t have should not prevent her from being able to have an abortion.”
As awareness of the prevalence of abortion grows and people are exposed to their friends’ and neighbors’ real stories, demonizing abortion care has become more of a challenge.
Meanwhile, the injustice of depriving people who cannot pay of abortion becomes more and more apparent.
“Here is what it took to gather the money for my abortion,” Johnson said, describing one patient’s experience during her testimony. “It was hard, it took me three weeks. … The payday loan [I took out for my abortion] wiped out my entire account. … I got a 3-day notice on my apartment door, and things started to spiral out of control, and then when I became evicted, I lived in a shelter temporarily.”
Johnson emphasized both the racist and sexist nature of Hyde, and called for a future in which it is eliminated.
“As a Black woman, I am outraged that the morally bankrupt Hyde Amendment has been permitted to persist for so long,” she testified. “It is a source of pain for many women, and should be a source of shame for those who support it.”