In the first three months of 2015, state legislatures have introduced nearly 800 provisions related to reproductive health -- more than 40 percent of which would restrict access to abortion.
This dangerous trend is nothing new. Onerous regulation of abortion clinics, restrictions on abortion procedures, waiting periods, and the like are among the state restrictions that, in the last four years alone, far surpassed those enacted in the entire previous decade.
Not to be outdone, amid this extraordinary increase in state efforts, anti-choice members of Congress are also looking for new ways to make abortion more difficult for women to access. Their strategy? Incorporate federal restrictions on abortion coverage and funding into yet more laws and programs. These attempts are just another assault in the campaign to deny women safe, affordable abortion begun in 1976, when Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), proposed an amendment to a budget bill that barred federal funds from covering abortion for women enrolled in Medicaid, the federal health care program for low-income individuals. Hyde said then:
I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.
As Hyde intended, today abortion has been put financially out of reach for many women just because they are struggling to make ends meet. Research shows that Hyde forces one in four poor women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. There is no denying that this ban has had a serious impact. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), nearly one in seven women of reproductive age was enrolled in Medicaid, nearly half of whom were women of color. This number is only expected to increase as many states rightly expand Medicaid under the ACA. But for women, the opportunity to finally afford the most basic health coverage comes at the great price of being denied affordable abortion coverage. And since 1976, Hyde's wish to broaden his ban to more women has had success.
With consent of today's lawmakers, similar bans have been imposed on most other federal health programs. By the 1990s, federal employees, members of the military, veterans, women incarcerated in federal prisons, Peace Corps volunteers, and Native Americans had all become, along with their dependents, unable to access abortion services through federal programs except in very limited circumstances.
Lack of access to abortion has serious consequences. Hyde places a woman and her family at greater risk of poverty if she cannot afford an abortion. A woman who wants to end a pregnancy but is denied the ability to do so is three times more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who has access to abortion. For a woman to be able to make a real decision about abortion, based on her own circumstances and religious or moral beliefs, she needs to be able to afford it.
By pushing this care out of reach, bans impinge on a woman's moral and bodily autonomy, interfering in personal decisions about her health and family as well as threatening her economic security.
How is this good for society as a whole or our larger shared goals, such as reducing poverty? Wouldn't it make more sense if health programs for women struggling to make ends meet covered all pregnancy related care, including contraception and abortion - not just childbirth? Isn't it better for women, families, and our communities when a woman can plan if and when to become a parent?
Pushing logic (and constitutional rights) aside, Hyde became entrenched over the last four decades. Victories of the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s were followed by a significant political backlash. Elections were won by convincing many Americans that their hard-earned tax dollars were being used for the government's reckless spending on anti-poverty programs that supported the supposed immoral behavior of the poor, particularly people of color. The junction of racism and sexism left few in Congress with the courage or the ability to turn the tide.
Which brings us to the recent controversy over the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015. Illustrating the new anti-abortion campaign to tack on abortion restrictions to every piece of legislation possible, the bill introduced in the Senate would have extended the Hyde restriction to money collected as fines from convicted traffickers, to be used for trafficking victims' medical care. This would have expanded Hyde beyond appropriations bills. It would have not only harmed trafficking survivors -- further denying them the ability to make a personal decision about their health, body, and future -- but set a new precedent to push abortion out of reach.
And yet, Hyde has never become a permanent law. Lawmakers must re-approve it every year. In the face of intensified efforts on Capitol Hill to extend Hyde's reach with the goal of making it permanent, the reproductive health, rights and justice movement is fighting back. Not content with simply defending the status quo from further degradation, the national campaign All* Above All, with a diverse and broad array of allies (including the National Council of Jewish Women), takes on the racist and sexist stereotypes that underlay Hyde. And we are in this fight for however long it takes.
We who want to restore every woman's ability to make her own decisions about ending a pregnancy -- especially those of us who have that ability now, simply due to our own financial circumstances -- need to pick up the pace of our efforts.
We must draw a line in the sand. We must make clear to our lawmakers, from the President to Congress to our local officials, that denying abortion coverage in any form on any bill is never ok. Not in the budget, not in appropriations, not in a stand-alone bill.
If we believe that reproductive freedom is a constitutional value as important as any other, we have to fight back. Because if we don't, abortion rights opponents will certainly continue to chip away until the restrictions extend to everyone, as Hyde called on them to do.
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