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Playing Games With Reproductive Health Coverage

The yearly Hyde Amendment debate exposes legislators who would deny poor women their rights.

(Image: Ultrasound machine via Shutterstock)

Over the past month, antichoice advocates have made some alarming – dare I say, horrifying – claims about the importance of a person’s right and ability to get safe, affordable abortion care. In fact, many have suggested that it’s acceptable for antichoice legislators to expand the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion, by including it in unrelated legislation, such as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Simply put, they make the Hyde Amendment out to be no big deal, something that’s set in stone, and something that isn’t worth fighting against every chance we get.

First, let’s get some facts straight. Yes, the Hyde Amendment has been affirmed by Congress annually since 1976, but it is by no means codified law. Every year, Congress bans federal Medicaid funds from paying for abortion services through this annual rider. And despite claims by some that trafficking survivors would be covered by Hyde’s rape exception, that’s not entirely true. In fact, exemptions vary year to year and are implemented unevenly from state to state. Besides – no matter what exceptions are made – reproductive rights must apply to everyone.

Hyde is not settled in any sense of the word – and not only because we are committed to fighting it. Rather, the annual reintroduction of Hyde reopens the debate on whether the ability to get an abortion is one that belongs to everyone or only to those who have the financial means necessary to access legal, safe abortion care. This debate provides us with an opportunity to see which of our lawmakers believe that being forced to carry a pregnancy to term is the price a woman should pay for being poor, and which of our lawmakers believe abortion rights should not be based on income or socioeconomic status.

Even more unconscionable is that these antichoice advocates imply that we should just sit back and watch as antichoice politicians expand Hyde by including it into any piece of legislation they can.

To suggest that any expansion of Hyde is acceptable is shortsighted and dangerous. Abortion opponents use these “small stretches” and incremental changes to restrict abortion until it’s pushed entirely out of reach. And these incremental restrictions are part of a larger pattern of interfering with personal decision making. Antichoice politicians can’t make abortion illegal, so instead they’re trying to make it more unaffordable and unavailable. Just this year, antichoice politicians in Congress have introduced more than 20 restrictive bills that would create more barriers to abortion, including bills that:

• Require an ultrasound even if it’s not medically indicated;

• Ban funds for health centers that provide affordable birth control and women’s health care to low-income women if they also provide abortion;

• Ban insurance coverage of abortion for low-income women; and

• Declare that life begins at fertilization, making every embryo the legal equivalent of a living person.

In addition, state legislators have introduced hundreds (and I’m not exaggerating) of antichoice bills in the last three months. This same argument has allowed the state of Ohio to pass a bill banning hospitals that receive public subsidies from offering transfer agreements to abortion clinics in the state – a move that has already caused at least one clinic to lose its license. These small, allegedly inconsequential “stretches” are precisely what antichoice legislators use to erode access to safe and affordable abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment should never be considered a default when it comes to abortion restrictions. As long as there are college students forced to drop out of school and use their tuition money to pay for procedures or young mothers skipping the rent so they can afford the medical care that’s best for their families, we need to have this debate every year, over and over again. Because one of these years, Congress will figure out that deciding when to give birth is a right that belongs to all of us, no matter how much money we have. And that’s when we all win.

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