Why We Need to Talk About Biden’s Support of the Hyde Amendment

Former Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden has confirmed that he still supports the Hyde Amendment, a ban prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion care. Prior to the Hyde Amendment’s passage in 1976, Medicaid paid for about 300,000 abortions each year. After Hyde passed, neither people on Medicaid nor people dependent upon on the Indian Health Service for medical care could rely on that coverage to access abortion care. In 1977, Rosie Jimenez became the first known person to die as the result of an illegal abortion after the passage of the Hyde Amendment.

Rosie Jimenez died with a $700 scholarship check in her purse. Like many pregnant people, she had plans for herself and her 5-year-old daughter that were jeopardized by an unplanned pregnancy. As a Chicana woman living in Texas, Rosie no doubt faced many systemic barriers in her life, but it was the Hyde Amendment that robbed her of access to a safe abortion — a deprivation that cost Rosie her life.

For many, Hyde turned back the clock on reproductive rights. While people of means could still access abortion, people with little or no income were thrust back into the desperate straits that most pregnant people in need of abortion care faced prior to Roe. In this way, Hyde successfully replicated the racial and class dynamics of the pre-Roe era, when pregnant people who could afford to travel could access abortion care, while others were left to choose between back alley abortions and forced birth.

As a senator, Biden voted against a 1977 compromise that would have allowed Medicaid to fund abortions in cases of rape and incest or when the life of a pregnant person was at risk. The compromise passed without Biden’s support. But in 1981, Biden joined a successful effort to remove those exemptions. Biden’s continued support of Hyde flies in the face of the arguments many of his supporters have leveled when his past legislative actions have been called into question. Such supporters have argued that Biden made those choices in a different time, and that his politics have evolved. Yet Biden is offering concrete evidence that he’s the same man who both voted for and spearheaded bills that have had disastrous impacts on marginalized people.

At a reproductive justice rally that my friends and I recently organized, I talked about not repeating the mistakes of the past. One of those mistakes was that many mainstream feminists poured less energy into defending abortion rights after Roe was decided. When Hyde came, they did not rise up to defend access for marginalized, impoverished communities. In the 1980s, mainstream feminists adopted the language of “choice” and “privacy,” mimicking right-wing arguments against “big government” to broaden their base. Those arguments coalesced all too well with the arguments of conservatives who were hard at work severing what remained of the social safety net. The destruction of the safety net, as we now know, also played a key role in the rise of the prison-industrial complex.

It’s crucial to revisit these arguments as we consider Biden as a presidential contender. There are many reasons that it is absurd to expect marginalized people, or any young people for that matter, to rally around such a man. Biden’s racist crime bill, his unapologetic treatment of Anita Hill, his authoring of bills that shredded student loan protections, his statement that he has no sympathy for the plight of young people (who, as it happens, are doing their best to survive in a gig economy on a dying planet) — for these reasons and many more, Biden is likely to lose to Trump. He is offensive to the very base a Democratic presidential candidate ought to be activating. But in a moment when so many of us are rallying against abortion bans and attacks on Roe, Biden’s support of Hyde must be specifically addressed. It’s an attack on the basic rights of marginalized communities. It’s an attack on the solidarity that so many of us are attempting to build as we defend our bodily autonomy. And like most of Biden’s politics, it’s a throwback to the same historical mistakes that brought us here. Biden will not overcome the mistakes of the past because he is a walking, talking representation of those mistakes. He is an emblem with a pulse, signifying the very politics that delivered us to evil in the first place.

In 2019, we are all operating on the edge of extinction and disaster. Under Trump, we wake up to new nightmares each morning, rather than rousing from them. It would be easy to declare that “anything but this” would suffice. But drowning in a shallow swimming pool is ultimately no different from drowning in a vast ocean. We must demand something better — something that gets us all closer to free.