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Jessica Arons

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A Right Denied: The Hyde Amendment Violates Women's Civil Rights

Posted: 01/17/11 06:25 PM ET

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reminded of his poignant words that a "right delayed is a right denied." This is as true for reproductive rights as it is for other civil and human rights. And nowhere is it more true than with regard to a policy known as the Hyde Amendment, which delays and sometimes entirely denies poor women, especially women of color, access to abortion.

Abortion policy in this country does not treat all women equally. Even before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, affluent women were usually able to access abortion safely through a network of private doctors or by traveling to other states or countries where it was legal. Meanwhile, poor women risked their health, fertility, and often their lives to end a pregnancy. Unfortunately, because of the Hyde Amendment, similar inequalities exist today -- nearly 40 years after the Supreme Court declared that all women have a constitutional right to abortion.

The Hyde Amendment prohibits Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for the indigent, from covering abortion care in almost all circumstances. Most people think of this as a "woman's issue," which of course it is. But the Hyde Amendment intentionally discriminates against poor women and has a disparate impact on women of color. In this way, the Hyde Amendment is a civil rights issue as well.

The Hyde Amendment is especially harmful to women of color. According to the most recent Census data, 25.8 percent of African Americans and 25.3 percent of Hispanics are poor, compared to 12.3 percent of whites and 12.5 percent of Asians. As a result, women of color are more likely to rely on government health programs. And due to socioeconomic factors, women of color disproportionately experience a range of reproductive and other health disparities, including higher rates of infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, STIs, unintended pregnancy, and abortion.

The upshot: women of color are more likely to be directly affected by the Hyde Amendment and other abortion funding restrictions.

We do not subject other fundamental constitutional freedoms -- voting, free speech, freedom to worship, the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel -- to poll taxes or income requirements. But a woman's ability to act on her constitutionally protected decision to have an abortion is subject to the whims of a fickle legislature and what is (or is not) in her pocketbook.

It is poor women, disproportionately women of color, who have to scrape together money for an abortion -- foregoing rent or utilities, pawning dear items, taking food out of their children's mouths, or worse. It is these women who consider suicide or self-harm, risk inducing an abortion on their own, or continue a pregnancy against their will and better judgment because they cannot find the money or get to a clinic in time. And it is these women whom policymakers continually ignore but who must live with the consequences of political fights over which they have little control.

Ironically, abortion opponents have recently tried to claim the mantle as defenders of civil rights, launching a pernicious campaign aimed at driving a wedge in the African American community over abortion. Citing high rates of abortion among black women, they claim that "abortion is genocide" and argue that abortion providers intentionally target black women for discriminatory reasons.

This strategy cynically plays on an understandable distrust of the medical establishment among many people of color due to a history of eugenics in this country. But it completely ignores the structural racism and economic inequality that create health disparities for women of color across the board. It also treats women of color as pawns in the alleged self-destruction of themselves and their own community rather than as agents of their own self-determination.

Where is the outrage of abortion opponents that the infant mortality rate is twice as high for blacks as for whites? Where is their indignation that three-fourths of HIV cases in Washington, D.C. are among African Americans?

The reality about abortion and women of color is that our government has taken a group of women who have little access to health care generally, a heightened incidence of disease and injury, and an increased risk of unintended pregnancy, and then walled off abortion care. This leaves these women in the horrible position of not having the institutional supports necessary to plan wanted pregnancies, carry healthy pregnancies to term, and raise their children with dignity, yet unable to end pregnancies that they do not want or feel unprepared to handle.

As long as these unjust provisions remain a part of our laws, the rights of women in this country will continue to be treated according to two different standards: whether you can afford to pay for your rights or not. That is not equality.

The Hyde Amendment has been in place for almost 35 years. We have long since passed from delayed justice to outright denial. Repealing the Hyde Amendment will not, by itself, ensure full equality for women of color and low-income women, but it is a necessary precondition. Ending abortion funding restrictions will improve the lives of all women, but none more so than the women who have already shouldered much more than their fair share of injustice.

This piece was co-authored by Shira Saperstein, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and deputy director of the Moriah Fund.

The full report on which this column is based, "Separate and Unequal: The Hyde Amendment and Women of Color," can be found at: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/12/hyde_amendment.html.