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Beyond Federal Funding for Contraception: Taking a Firm Stance on the Hyde Amendment

Over the past few months, in discussing the attack on Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, I—along with probably just about every other feminist and pro-choice activist in the country—found myself repeating “but they already don’t get federal funding for abortion!” so many times I felt like a broken record. It has been necessary, thanks to a proliferation of misleading articles and statements on the subject, to offer that kind of clarification. At the same time, however, I’ve been increasingly concerned that in our haste to remind everyone that this particular political battle is not about funding for abortion, we’ve given the impression that it’s perfectly valid and acceptable that abortion remain ineligible for federal funding. It feels almost as if we’re saying: “oh no, no, we would never ask for taxpayer money for that! We’re talking about breast exams!” And while clarity is absolutely important, and people do need to understand exactly what’s at stake in the current budget wars and what isn’t, I would argue that it’s equally vital that we not throw abortion rights under the bus in an effort to protect other family planning and health services.

Amanda Marcotte eloquently addressed some of the misgivings I’ve been feeling here recently. But I would like to add to the dialogue some thoughts not just on abortion access in general, but specifically on the topic of federal funding for abortion. When worded that way, it’s already something of a misnomer—“federal funding for abortion” calls to mind some kind of specific U.S. abortion fund for anyone who wants it. What we’re really talking about here is whether tax dollars can be used for abortion in the same way they’re used for countless other medical procedures via Medicaid and other government-funded health and welfare programs. Since the Hyde amendment passed in 1976, such programs have only been able to provide abortion coverage under extreme and rare circumstances. And it seems to me that even a fair number of people who consider themselves to be pro-choice are willing to accept this as a reasonable compromise: of course abortion should be legal, but we shouldn’t expect people who don’t agree with it to pay for it! It is a rhetoric liberals engage in far too often: asking for personal liberty, and bending over backward to insist those liberties won’t infringe in any way on anyone else.

What this stance ignores, of course, is that nearly all use of our tax dollars is controversial in some way. Huge numbers of us oppose the wars we’re engaged in and overblown military spending in general. I have deep, ethical feelings about the tax-breaks that are given to big corporations while funding for social services and education are slashed. But it is unlikely that any conservative is ever going to say something like: “Oh, I understand what sensitive issues these are—we’re not asking to use your tax dollars for wars you ethically oppose!” The very notion is laughable. And yet that’s exactly the kind of “let’s not step on anyone’s toes” concession that liberals are willing to make with regard to the use of tax dollars for abortion.

Consider, too, the danger of applying this “we won’t fund it if it’s controversial” thinking to other medical issues. What if we passed an amendment prohibiting the use of Medicaid for the treatment of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses? What if we barred all Medicaid payment for any illness or injury that could result from risky behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, being sexually active, or even engaging in potentially physically dangerous sports or hobbies? Or, what if we eliminated all LGBTQ folks from eligibility for all social assistance because some people don’t agree with their “lifestyle” and therefore don’t want to support them in any way? There is no doubt in my mind that some extreme conservatives would think those things all sound like excellent suggestions. But there would not—I fervently hope—ever be enough public support for such regulations to make them a reality. Why should abortion be any different? Why should the ethical objection of a few be considered reasonable cause for restricting access to a safe and legal medical procedure?

The term “pro-choice” has very little meaning if we are only defending the choice for those who can afford it. I’ll never forget a few years ago, overhearing a young man on the phone in the hallway of a community college. “She’s going to have the baby,” he said. And then, after a pause, “yeah, she was gonna get one, but it cost like five hundred bucks.” Is this really what we mean by “choice”?

It takes a certain degree of privilege to ignore what a huge barrier the Hyde amendment creates for those in or near poverty. For many who are comfortably middle-class, it seems good enough that abortion is simply legal. Having to pay out of pocket for it is a compromise many women are willing to make. But for countless others, that cost is not just an inconvenience, it’s literally the difference between whether or not abortion is actually an available option. In the years between Roe’s legalization of abortion and Hyde’s prohibition of Medicaid coverage, Medicaid paid for about one third of abortions nationwide, affirming the fact that what we’re talking about is more than just a small group of women who are impacted by the amendment. And without abortion coverage, those women are left to sell personal belongings, forgo paying other bills, or to cut back spending on basic necessities like food in order to save up the money necessary for the procedure. Many simply end up continuing their pregnancies to term. And while I support and advocate for the right of all women to choose motherhood regardless of their economic position, it also goes without saying that a woman who desires an abortion but cannot afford one is not likely to find herself in a better financial situation after being forced into motherhood.

The National Network of Abortion Funds provides an invaluable service and does its best to provide financial assistance for women unable to afford abortion. But the funds cannot possibly help everyone—nor should they have to. It’s high time that all who would proudly wear the pro-choice label stop being acquiescent with regard to the Hyde amendment. Fighting for equal access to abortion means treating that access as a right, not a luxury. Let’s keep making corrections and clarifications when we hear people talking about the debate over Planned Parenthood’s funding. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pointing out: “hey, it’s not about abortion!” But maybe while we’re at it, we can start some conversations about the Hyde amendment, too—offering up an education on what it is, and why it desperately needs to go.


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