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The Right’s Attack on Roe v. Wade at 40: The Hyde and Helms Legacy

Thousands of women remain without affordable access to reproductive health care.

Those who celebrate the enduring legacy of Roe v. Wade must also be mindful of the barriers to reproductive autonomy that remain.

While celebrating the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we must also mourn the staying power of rhetoric demonizing women who seek reproductive autonomy – especially the young, the poor, rural women and women of color – and the legislation that blocks their ability to access abortion. Battles over the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act are only the latest example, following two earlier victories that targeted these vulnerable populations both at home and abroad: the Helms and Hyde amendments.

The lesser known Helms Amendment to the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act blocks US funds from use for abortion care abroad, even if abortion is legal in that country, as in the United States, exporting the right-wing agenda to other countries. In a country like Nepal, which eased its abortion restrictions in 2002, Helms puts up arduous barriers to access by forbidding the use of medical equipment and facilities funded by US aid for abortion services.

Back on the home front, the 1976 Hyde Amendment ended federal funding of abortion care through Medicaid, the “largest healthcare program in the United States,” with difficult-to-exercise rape, incest and health exceptions. Hyde set in motion the strategy of using legislation to chip away at Roe and deprive poor women (disproportionately women of color) of access to abortion. Thirty-three states replicated the federal amendment, and of the 17 that use state funds to cover abortion under Medicaid, all but four do so under court order.

This trend, combined with decades of the Right unjustly blaming indigent mothers – especially African-Americans and Latinas – for abusing social programs, ushered in chilling cuts and sweeping “reform” to federal welfare by the mid-90s under the Clinton administration. Hyde and welfare reform comprise dramatic losses to the social safety net that ensures poor families can meet basic needs. Unfortunately, the pro-choice movement has largely been ineffective in fighting this narrative about poor women of color, or in moving toward eradicating Hyde.

Of course, legislative fights are just one way through which the Right actualizes its anti-choice agenda. In the four decades since Roe, the anti-choice movement has eroded Roe’s promise through intimidation and violence (including murder), court cases and grassroots organizing.

Emerging Organizing Trends: Racialization and Adoption

Prominent anti-abortion organizations like Right to Life and the American Life League continue to galvanize the largely white and conservative Christian movement. Yet today’s anti-choice leadership is increasingly diverse: Sought-after spokespeople include African-American leaders like Dr. Alveda King, whose legacy as a niece of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives her a platform, and Rev. Arnold Culbreath, who leads an urban anti-choice outreach initiative. Along with other anti-choice groups led by people of color, they are creating racially targeted campaigns, like the Radiance Foundation’s, which admits without qualms that “[co-founder Ryan] Bomberger and others like him accuse Planned Parenthood of exhorting black women to obtain abortions as a form of genocide.” Its initial billboard campaign read: “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.”

Though it might not be immediately apparent, the Right’s historical rhetoric, accusing African-American women of having too many children in order to “hustle” increased welfare benefits, dovetails with this racialized anti-abortion campaigning. Loretta Ross, SisterSong co-founder and a reproductive justice leader noted the strategic shift in 2011: “The antiabortion opponents changed their tactics: Now they claim to promote adoption for black children.” fiercely advocates adoption – especially transracial adoption. The right-wing ideology remains consistent by claiming that while African-American women must carry unwanted pregnancies to term, single and poor moms should consider adoption – to two-parent (male and female) and often white families.

After conceptualizing the “too many aborted” billboards in African-American communities, Bomberger has turned to creating advertisements promoting adoption. His latest media campaign, “Turn the Unplanned into a Loving Plan,” is a collaborative effort with the RealOptions crisis pregnancy center and Bethany Christian Services, the largest international adoption agency – a coup for gaining mainstream respectability and power. The web site is set to launch on February 13th, in time for Valentine’s Day.

These public service announcements polish the anti-choice movement’s public image with a veneer of youth and diversity. The emphasis on adoption and positive imagery, rather than traditional images of bloody fetuses, advances the Right’s attempts to appeal to broader audiences.

Waging an Intersectional War

Mississippi, where women’s health activists fight to keep the last abortion-providing clinic open, is the same state where a right-wing governor is refusing to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act – taking advantage of the US Supreme Court decision to allow states to opt out of the expansion. Thousands of women will remain without affordable access to reproductive health care, contraceptive services and abortion – even in cases of rape, incest, women’s health or fetal impairment. This is only one example of how the anti-choice Right remains committed to undermining reproductive rights overall, and access to safe and legal abortion.

This is why I join other women-of -color leaders in urging defenders of Roe to take an intersectional approach to organizing. The reproductive justice framework acknowledges the intimate link between abortion access and racial and economic justice, as particularly demonstrated by the Helms and Hyde amendments, knowing that the Right encroaches on abortion access for all women by stepping on poor women of color here and abroad.

For an informative analysis and useful tools for countering the Right, please see the “What is Reproductive Justice Slideshow and Webinar” posted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and PRA’s Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit online.

This post is part of “Still Wading: Forty years of Resistance, Resilience and Reclamation in Communities of Color,” a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

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