When Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde (1924-2007) introduced a legislative measure to cut off federal Medicaid funding for abortion in 1976 – leaving it up to each state to decide whether to use locally raised revenue to pay for the procedure – he understood that by incrementally chipping away at Roe v. Wade, he and his colleagues would be able to make headway in reducing access to reproductive choice.
“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. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the Medicaid bill,” he told Congress.
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And so began a relentless onslaught of federal, and then state, attacks on abortion, a campaign that has led to passage of a staggering 231 restrictions since 2011 and many hundreds more since Roe was decided in 1973. This, of course, has done little to appease lawmakers who want an outright ban on legal abortion.
On the federal level, the new Republican-led 114th Congress has acted quickly, demonstrating their gumption by introducing six separate antichoice measures during the first seven days of convening. One of them – a bill to make it impossible to buy health insurance policies that cover abortion through the Affordable Care Act – passed the House on Roe’s 42nd birthday.
Similarly, bans on abortion after 20 weeks, personhood amendments, and laws to force clinics to operate like ambulatory surgery centers are among the restrictions proposed in numerous state houses throughout the South and Midwest.
Obviously, advocates of reproductive justice are facing an uphill slog, but a coalition of activists, called All* Above All, is not only taking on the Hyde Amendment, but is working to promote a positive, pro-woman agenda that places eliminating poverty and challenging racism, sexism and classism at the core of its efforts. The campaign has already generated a great deal of grassroots momentum.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, a staff person at Forward Together, a 25-year-old Oakland, California-based reproductive justice (RJ) group, participated in a summer 2014 All* Above All bus tour that travelled more than 10,000 miles and brought hard facts about Hyde to people in 12 disparate cities.
“Some people said that they clearly remembered when Roe was announced and couldn’t believe we were still fighting this battle; others who had not been born in 1973 were shocked to learn that this type of discrimination continues to exist,” she said.
“They were stunned to learn that women who attempt to access abortions but can’t are three times more likely to fall into poverty than women who are able to get the care they need. Many people also had no idea that Medicaid restrictions have such a disproportionate impact on people of color, who tend to be poorer than Caucasians overall.”
Other facts, among them that the Hyde Amendment impacts 9 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 – 1 in 7 US females – further angered those with whom Krishnamurthy and other All* Above All volunteers spoke, and it took no coaxing to get them to write letters to their elected officials in support of overturning Hyde. “Most agreed that the government should not put up barriers to abortion access,” she reported.
Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, vice president of program and development at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, [rcrc.org] said that RCRC joined the coalition for just this reason. “The Hyde Amendment was constructed to systematically target women of color and working-class and poor communities, she said. “To marginalize and throw these communities under the bus is sinful and horrifying. Our faith tradition calls us to do something about it.”
In addition to working with All* Above All, RCRC has developed a program called It’s Time, a congregation-based campaign to raise issues of reproductive justice within churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. In addition, by working with the largely-secular All* Above All, RCRC is attempting to serve as a “bridge” between RJ and religious organizations. Along the way, RCRC is contesting the still-prevalent idea that all people of faith oppose choice and support patriarchy.
All* Above All is a project of the Coalition for Abortion Access and Reproductive Equity, a four-year-old entity initiated by the National Network of Abortion Fund (NNAF); and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “Every effort to defeat Hyde has been built on the ones that came before it,” Stephanie Poggi, executive director of NNAF, told Truthout.
“When Hyde first passed, there was a battle to repeal it, but it lost, and in 1981, the Supreme Court upheld the ban.” A dozen years later, in 1993, she continued, the Black Women’s Health Project launched another repeal effort. “This one succeeded in getting the rape and incest exceptions inserted into the amendment,” Poggi noted, a victory that allows pregnancies resulting from these types of violations to be terminated for anyone in any state who is covered.
It was a small, but not insignificant win, Poggi added, and subsequent organizing drives in 2000 and 2006 continued to build support for overturning Hyde. Some of the impetus, she said, came from the more than 80 abortion funds that raise private money from individual donors to help low-income women pay for abortions in the 32 states (and Washington, DC) that do not provide funding for them, something that would not be needed if Medicaid coverage was available.
Poggi further credited the leadership of women of color in the reproductive justice movement for pushing the interests of the most vulnerable constituencies into the limelight. “Thanks to the leadership of those who work directly with low-income women, All* Above All is the strongest anti-Hyde effort yet,” she said.
The coalition’s strategy is multi-tiered and long range. Right now, Poggi reports, All* Above All is concentrating on building support for overturning Hyde by reaching out to young people, people of color and activists “who already see how important it is to build support for this work.”
They are also working in states where Medicaid coverage is currently available, but considered vulnerable – Minnesota, Oregon and West Virginia – and are shoring up support for its continued provision.
“We need to protect the coverage that exists and make it stronger,” Poggi explained. “We’ll then try to expand into states without coverage. It’s our job to demonstrate how central Medicaid coverage for abortion is in ensuring that low-income women have decent lives. We also need to highlight the links between reproductive freedom and economic and racial justice.”
While All* Above All is intent on spreading this message to regular folks, it also wants to bring state, city and federal legislators on board. Kate Stewart is on the coalition’s steering committee and points out that at the conclusion of the bus tour, more than 175 activists converged on Washington, DC, for Hill Education Day meetings with 95 lawmakers, several of whom committed to working to overturn the amendment, all Democratic representatives: Rep. Katherine Clark (Massachusetts); Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut); Ted Deutch (Florida); Keith Ellison (Minnesota); Eleanor Holmes Norton (Washington, DC); Mike Quigley (Illinois); and Jan Schakowsky (Illinois).
A petition to President Obama, signed by more than 80 organizations, further demanded that Medicaid funding for abortion be included in the fiscal 2016 budget.
All* Above All has effectively demonstrated that “Medicaid coverage is not the third rail of reproductive health policy,” said Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas of the National Latina Institute. Nonetheless, not all of the 60-plus coalition members are able to make its demands a number one priority.
Cherisse A. Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a three-year-old Tennessee group working to promote reproductive justice, cautions that it may be impossible to make overturning Hyde a central demand in every state. “Tennessee just passed Amendment One in November,” she said. “This means that if we lose Roe at the federal level, our state legislature will immediately make abortion illegal here. Our priority right now is educating people about what just happened, because a lot of folks believe abortion is already illegal. For the foreseeable future, Hyde will have to take a back seat.”
Still, to a one, All* Above All members agree that it is high time for the reproductive justice movement to be proactive. “We’re working to engage the women of color, young women and poor women who are the most impacted by restrictions on abortion,” said steering committee member Kate Stewart. “It’s a multifaceted campaign that takes a bold, positive, vocal and visible stand to lift coverage bans.”
Despite obvious challenges, she is heartened by the on-the-ground support All* Above All has received from people across the country.
That said, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas of the Latina Institute concedes that the stakes remain extremely high, and she urges supporters to keep the focus on the ways the amendment impacts individuals and families.
“We should never forget Rosie Jimenez,” she concluded, “or her tragic legacy.” Jimenez was a 27-year-old Latina single mother and college student who is the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment. Her life was lost to septic shock following an illegal abortion two months after the amendment took effect. Although Jimenez had a Medicaid card, she lived in Texas, a state that does not provide the coverage she needed to terminate an ill-timed and unwanted pregnancy.