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Widespread Public Support Bolsters Bill to End Restrictions on Abortion Coverage

The EACH Woman Act would nullify existing abortion bans and prevent future blocks to access for low-income women.

Protesters display a banner in opposition to the anti-abortion "Walk for Life" in San Francisco, California, January 24, 2009. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

At the very moment that a GOP-lead House subcommittee voted to further punish those in need by slashing $125 billion in federal food assistance funding, three Democratic congresswomen and their 70 congressional cosponsors announced the introduction of legislation this week to end 39 years of discrimination against the poor through abortion funding bans like the Hyde Amendment.

Since 1976, the annually renewed Hyde Amendment has prohibited the use of federal funds to cover abortion care for the one in six women of reproductive age (15 to 44) insured through Medicaid. Hyde, in conjunction with recent laws severely restricting or prohibiting abortion coverage in 25 states, even for some private insurance plans, has led one in four low-income US residents to carry unintended pregnancies to term against their wills.

The EACH Woman Act would nullify existing abortion coverage bans while preventing future legislation from blocking access to low-income people.

Reps. Barbara Lee (D-California), Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and the 36 state and national organizations united under the All* Above All campaign announced Wednesday that they are seeking to end this injustice and reverse the recent trend of anti-abortion legislation with the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or EACH Woman Act. The bill extends coverage to Medicaid recipients, and it also restores the constitutional right to abortion for employees of the federal government and their dependents, residents of the District of Columbia, Peace Corps volunteers, Native Americans, federal prisoners and detainees (including those detained for immigration purposes), and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollees.

The EACH Woman Act would nullify existing abortion coverage bans at the state and federal level while preventing future legislation from recreating the disparity in access between low-income people and those with means. Because the policies currently in place disproportionately punish the already disadvantaged, the primary beneficiaries of this first-of-its-kind legislation would be youth, poor residents in rural areas with additional logistical barriers to abortion care, and people of color.

“This legislation would ensure that every woman can access all of her health-care options, regardless of how much money she earns or where she lives,” Lee said in her statement at Wednesday’s press conference. “Regardless of how someone personally feels about abortion, none of us, especially elected officials, should be interfering with a woman’s right to make her own health-care decision just because she is poor.”

Public Support for Abortion Access

According to a new poll from Hart Research Associates conducted on behalf of All* Above All, voters in nearly every demographic combination – age, party affiliation, religious background, ethnicity – agree with Lee and would support legislation like the EACH Woman Act.

By a 24-point margin (59 percent to 35 percent), more voters align with the statement: “However we feel about abortion, politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman insurance coverage for it just because she is poor” than with the statement: “Using taxpayer dollars for abortions forces all of us to pay for them – even people who don’t believe in abortion.”

Flying in the face of ideologically motivated, well-funded legislators and anti-abortion talking heads, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of repealing abortion funding bans or – at the very least – staying out of their neighbors’ business. Double-digit majorities among Democrats (85 percent), Independents (75 percent), and Republicans (62 percent) go even further, agreeing that “as long as abortion is legal, the amount of money a woman has or does not have should not prevent her from being able to have an abortion.”

With such strong support for bodily autonomy and empowerment, it’s striking that funding bans have been added to every federal budget for a generation and signed by presidents of both parties. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) was up front about the motivation for his amendment the year after it first passed, making its annual reintroduction an indictment on our elected officials and political system up to this point.

“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,” Hyde said in 1977. “Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the … Medicaid bill.”

Unable to oppress all people who might need access to an abortion, Hyde and his cohorts settled for punishing the group whose rights are always the first to get traded away: the poor. While those who regularly do without basic needs might be used to seeing their rights on the chopping block, eliminating access to abortion care has the potential to do more than just make someone’s life more difficult or uncomfortable.

Representative Schakowsky acknowledged the real-world impact of ensuring abortion care is out of reach for millions of people at Wednesday’s press conference.

“Roe v. Wade wasn’t the beginning of abortion,” she said. “It was the end of women dying from abortions.”

A Small Step in the Face of New Abortion Restrictions

We know from US history that placing abortion out of reach for entire segments of the population has deadly effects. An estimated 5,000 people died annually in this country during abortion prohibition despite the 0.05 percent chance a medically competent, safe abortion will result in a complication of any kind requiring hospital follow-up care.

The movement for true reproductive justice is experiencing a groundswell, due in no small part to the leadership of young people of color, queer youth and unflinching organizers from historically red states.

That this legacy is being addressed by elected officials in Washington after decades of stigma-reinforcing language like “safe, legal and rare” and reluctance to risk political pushback in the defense of a constitutional right makes the introduction of legislation like the EACH Woman Act a culturally monumental moment. And it’s happening on the heels of anti-choice legislators having their way with hardly a whisper of pushback.

From 2010-2014 an onslaught of 231 abortion restrictions were signed into law, creating abortion clinic deserts of hundreds and even thousands of miles all over the country. This onslaught continues: Bills to further limit access and increase cost were introduced in 43 states just in the first quarter of this year.

In this political climate, the introduction of legislation that recognizes the constitutional and human rights of poor people is a social justice action.

“Being able to have an abortion is so much more than abortion being technically legal,” said Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, one of the organizations leading the movement to end funding bans, in a conversation with Truthout.

“It’s about making communities safe enough for us to raise all of our children and having the financial resources to ensure those kids are healthy and thriving,” Hernandez added. “The Hyde Amendment and coverage bans that discriminate based on how much money someone has or where they live are deeply unjust, and we will continue to be the voices speaking that truth because we are fighting for the right to live our lives with dignity and autonomy.”

Agitating for Reproductive Justice

“Community” and “justice” were referenced throughout Wednesday’s press conference by the bill’s congressional sponsors and supporters from the All* Above All coalition, including the woman facilitating the announcement, Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

“The EACH Woman Act advances access to reproductive health care and so much more,” González-Rojas told Truthout. “Abortion coverage is a reproductive justice issue – and it’s also an economic justice issue, a civil rights issue and a health equity issue. As we build the movement to lift coverage bans, we are excited to be working alongside social justice leaders from many movements to make real change for our communities.”

The movement for true reproductive justice is experiencing a groundswell, due in no small part to the leadership of young people of color, queer youth and unflinching organizers from historically red states who’ve watched as their rights have eroded rapidly during their lifetime.

“Young people and people of color are tired of bearing the brunt of policies that disenfranchise them and their decision-making,” Kierra Johnson, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), told Truthout as she described the diversity in her organization. URGE is a member of the All* Above All campaign coalition.

The majority of Americans are in support of lifting these bans on abortion coverage.

“The young people that are drawn into this movement today don’t see reproductive justice as wholly separate from LGBTQ equality – or, for that matter, separate from racial justice or economic justice or a host of other social justice issues,” said Johnson. “These issues are interconnected, just as the lives and identities of young people are interconnected. That’s the way that young people want to work on these issues, and that’s the way URGE works.”

Johnson, González-Rojas and Hernandez each referenced the need for proactive, rights-affirming legislation like the EACH Woman Act as they described the impact of having a technical right, with no practical means for exercising it, has on their communities.

“Our member funds … answer calls every day from people who need abortions who are prohibited from getting what they need because of an unjust system that doesn’t trust those with less money to make their own decisions about their lives,” said Hernandez.

Support from Religious Communities

One All* Above All coalition member backing the legislation adds a religious imperative to the fight for reproductive justice – an important contribution because over three-quarters of Americans identify with an organized religion.

“Compassion, which is common throughout most religions, is the cornerstone of a just and righteous society. You cannot love someone and treat them unfairly,” Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told Truthout.

“All of us, not just some, should have the reproductive health care to live our lives as the whole and healthy people we were created to be. All women and families, not just some, must be fully empowered with the tools and resources needed to decide whether, when, and under what circumstances to have children and to raise their children in healthy environments.”

Knox said he wasn’t surprised at the polling data showing broad support for legislation like the EACH Woman Act to repeal abortion coverage bans.

“Most people realize that decisions about how and under what circumstances to become a parent are sacred and personal, and best made by a woman with her family and faith in mind,” said Knox. “We also know that targeting poor and working-class women is wrong. Women with fewer resources shouldn’t have inferior care.”

Raising Awareness

Johnson explained that the biggest barrier to introducing the EACH Woman Act and beginning the work of building support among voters was simple awareness.

“Research shows that the majority of Americans are in support of lifting these bans on abortion coverage, but many aren’t aware of this problem,” she said. “The EACH Woman Act will raise awareness of this issue and continue to build our broad coalition of those who want to get rid of these bans once and for all.”

Knox articulated not only why repealing bans is an imperative, but also why basic education builds support: Withholding access to care to individuals punishes the poor and working class – and it affects everyone.

“Many of these women [affected by coverage bans] are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Forcing her to carry the pregnancy to term can push her deeper into poverty,” he said. “When women with low incomes have insurance that covers birth control and abortion – not just childbirth – they can plan if and when to have children. That’s good for them, it’s good for their children, and it’s good for society as a whole.”

Johnson expressed tempered optimism about passing a coverage ban repeal with an eye beyond the current GOP-control Congress and its hostility toward reproductive health.

“It’s a new majority that is refusing to be disenfranchised and fighting for the right to thrive. Young people have always been integral to the reproductive justice movement, but this campaign puts them in the spotlight and at the center of the solution,” said Johnson. “No matter what happens with the EACH Woman Act, the momentum of this campaign will not go away.”

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