Senators Introduce Legislation to Finally Repeal the Hyde Amendment and End Wide-Ranging Federal Abortion-Funding Ban
Holly Alvarado realized she might be pregnant while standing in the middle of a Walmart near Grand Forks Air Force Base, where she was stationed in 2009. Alvarado, then 22, was struggling to afford the supplies, like socks, underwear, and boots, she would need for at least six months in the Middle East. She had emptied her apartment of most belongings except for the sleeping bag she crawled into at night and crammed the rest in a storage unit, an expense that would grow over time. Alvarado had two weeks left in North Dakota before pre-deployment training began in Texas. From there, she would go on to serve her country. Alvarado knew she wanted an abortion almost as soon as she experienced her first wave of nausea in the Walmart. But Tricare, the military’s health-insurance program, would not cover the procedure.
Alvarado was subject to restrictions based on the Hyde Amendment, a ban on abortion coverage in federal health-insurance programs, most notably Medicaid for people with low incomes. Congressional Republicans have upheld Hyde for more than 40 years with an assist from an unlikely ally: the Democratic Party. For decades, Democrats have typically campaigned on reproductive rights but “compromised” on Hyde.
Their deference ends today. A number of influential Senate Democrats will introduce the EACH Woman Act, uniting the party behind a one-two punch of a bill that proposes to end Hyde and require federal health insurance to cover abortion. Led by Senators Tammy Duckworth, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, and Kamala Harris, a 2020 presidential contender, the landmark legislation marks the first of its kind in the Senate and closes the final gap in Democrats’ opposition to Hyde. Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus cochair Barbara Lee debuted the original version in 2015; Lee will re-up the EACH Woman Act in the House today, with Jan Schakowsky and fellow Pro-Choice Caucus cochair Diana DeGette.
The Senate bill solidifies Democrats’ newly aggressive approach to defending abortion rights under President Trump’s administration, stacked with far-right ideologues trying to cut off access to abortion and even contraception. With Brett Kavanaugh’s recent appointment, the Supreme Court could finally deliver on Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign pledge to “send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.” But Roe has been impinged upon by various economic and social realities long before Trump took office: Access to abortion is statistically more difficult for people based on insurance status, zip code, income, race, immigration status, gender identity, ability, and age. An abortion can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and “patients typically incur nonmedical costs, including for transportation, child care, lodging, and lost wages,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. That Democrats are willing to take on Hyde, the third rail of abortion politics, shows that they are finally serious about comprehensive reproductive health care. And it’s another indication that the party establishment is listening to its more progressive flanks and prioritizing issues that disproportionately impact women of color, who consistently vote Democrats into office.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed women’s constitutional right to make their own reproductive decisions, and it didn’t say ‘only wealthy women’ or ‘only women with insurance,’ ” Duckworth, a decorated Iraq War veteran and new mom, told Vogue. “Whatever you think about the Supreme Court’s ruling, we should all agree that what’s legal for a wealthy American shouldn’t be illegal or inaccessible for a poor American or a person of color—and that’s what this bill is about: fairness, equality, and equal opportunity.”
Hyde is known as a “rider” in the language of Beltway politics; since 1976, it has caught a ride with annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government, blocking abortion access for people who otherwise can’t afford it. In 1977, Rosie Jiménez, a 27-year-old Chicana mother and college student, died following an unsafe abortion. Barred from using her Medicaid to obtain quality but costly care, Jiménez is widely believed to be the Hyde Amendment’s first victim.
Lee was a young congressional staffer when Hyde initially took effect. “I knew then what impact it was going to have on low-income women and women of color,” she told Vogue. Hyde now prevents some 7.5 million women of reproductive age—3.5 million of whom live in poverty—from using their Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage for abortion care, according to 2015 Guttmacher Institute data. Moreover, “because of social and economic inequality linked to racism and discrimination, women of color are disproportionately likely to be insured by the Medicaid program: Thirty-one percent of black women aged 15 to 44 and 27 percent of Hispanic women of the same age were enrolled in Medicaid in 2015, compared with 15 percent of white women,” according to a 2016 Guttmacher report.
Hyde’s reach extends to Medicare and the Indian Health Service, harming Native women who “experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault and unintended pregnancy,” according to a 2014 article in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health. Federal inmates and detainees, federal employees, Peace Corps volunteers, District of Columbia residents with low incomes, and military service members are all subject to Hyde-like restrictions. Statistics do not yet include transgender and gender nonbinary people, but they too encounter Hyde in trying to access abortion care.
“I knew that one day I was going to work in whatever space I occupied to try to repeal that [policy],” Lee said. As a member of the 2016 Democratic Platform Drafting Committee, Lee first helped write Hyde’s repeal into the party’s official set of values.
Still, Democrats long considered Hyde the cost of doing business on Capitol Hill. That attitude has only shifted in the past five or so years, thanks largely to the work of All* Above All, the National Network of Abortion Funds, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, among other advocates in the women of color–led reproductive-justice movement that frames abortion as a matter of economic access. More than two-thirds of House Democrats co-sponsored the EACH Woman Act in the last Congress over the course of 2017 and 2018, and that number will likely swell with the new progressive class of first-term representatives.
Though there are no prior stand-alone versions by which to gauge Senate support, Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill in 2017 sought to end Hyde and cover abortion care. All* Above All codirector Destiny Lopez told Vogue that she hopes the EACH Woman Act will attract robust support over time from Senate Democrats, including the presidential hopefuls with whom the coalition has had “good conversations.” Harris is already a yes, as is fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand; Bernie Sanders, an Independent running as a Democrat, isn’t an original cosponsor but will likely support the bill, given his record against Hyde in the Senate and on the 2016 presidential campaign trail alongside Hillary Clinton, who also called for an end to the policy. Opposing Hyde could become a bellwether position among 2020 Democratic candidates facing increased pressure to demonstrate progressive commitment on issues like decriminalizing sex work and protecting sex workers’ rights.
The path forward for the House and Senate bills is a marathon, not a sprint. House Democratic leadership could bring the EACH Woman Act to a floor vote, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly will not. Lee, DeGette, and other Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus leaders have outlined a short-term strategy to drop Hyde from government spending bills and instead affirm reproductive health, rights, and justice. But such policies will not survive the current GOP-controlled Senate and White House. Republicans opened the new Congress with their perennial effort to make the Hyde Amendment a permanent law, though they failed again to meet the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority for most controversial legislation. Trump has taken to falsely demonizing the fraction of abortions that occur later in pregnancy to rile abortion opponents for the 2020 election.
But none of the above will deter the women—primarily women of color—leading the EACH Woman Act. Lawmakers and advocates believe they are working toward a future built on a new status quo. Lopez ultimately believes that Hyde won’t resonate with voters who are younger and more diverse.
“We can no longer say to them, ‘We are going to deny you this service, this right, simply because of the color of your skin or how much money you make,” Lopez said.
“Hyde” didn’t enter Holly Alvarado’s vocabulary until it was the subject of debate in a military leadership course two years after her abortion. Privately, she recalled her experience: securing leave from her commanding officer; driving nearly five hours to St. Paul’s Planned Parenthood clinic, the closest that could provide the care she needed in the time frame she needed; and sleeping in her car between her initial intake and her appointment.
Alvarado split the roughly $500 procedure between a debit card and a credit card, and soon left for her pre-deployment training with less than $14 in her pocket. At least she knew she could depend on the chow hall and a regular paycheck. Many other women who need abortions go without food, without pay, and without housing to get them. Now separated from the military, Alvarado told Vogue that she wants lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to understand the situation and to ultimately end Hyde’s grasp.
“Comprehensive health care means all aspects of health care, including abortion,” Alvarado said. “Please, please allow women to make the best decisions for themselves, and give them the space to do that. Give women the space to control their lives.”