In recent weeks, two critically important bills have been derailed by anti-choice politicians inserting language about abortion. In one – a bill to adjust Medicare payments, it was unnecessary grandstanding. In the other – the long-awaited bill to help survivors of trafficking get their lives back on track – the abortion language undercut the whole purpose of this critically-needed, supposedly bipartisan bill.
The legislative language in question is the so-called Hyde Amendment, which since 1976 has isolated abortion care as the only form of health care that cannot be funded with taxpayer dollars. This puts abortion care out of reach of low income women on Medicaid, the people least able to provide financially for another child, as well as military servicewomen and Peace Corps volunteers.
Despite these obvious perverse effects, the Hyde Amendment is a perennial favorite among anti-choice legislators. Speaker John Boehner sweetened the bill to fix Medicare payments to doctors by adding funding for community health clinics, an important source of health care for our nation’s poor people. The catch? He made sure that Hyde language was in there even though, by all accounts, it was redundant and unnecessary.
Then, in a precedent-setting move, Republican leadership allowed language in the bill that would apply the Hyde amendment to a private fund established by fining traffickers. A Loyola School of Law study found that women who are trafficked are forced to “service” an average of thirteen men a day. Eighty percent of these women report being pregnant at least once during this coerced sex, and 20% report being pregnant five times or more.
Years of work went into getting legislation that acknowledges the real circumstances of these women’s lives and helps them move on. This work is now threatened by ideological extremists in the U.S. Senate. After all these women have been put through, these senators would once again deny them the freedom to decide what happens with their own bodies, and hence with the rest of their lives.
Needless to say, political machinations like this are both deeply harmful and politically unwise for the GOP, a party which is hemorrhaging women voters, in a country where seven in ten people support legal access to abortion. Even more Americans say the GOP’s obsession with outlawing abortion is out of step with Americans’ desire to end gridlock in Washington.
But even more disturbing is how the Beltway conversation ignores the women whose lives are inalterably changed when they become political footballs. One analysis piece in Politico even claimed we can’t both help low income people and maintain abortion access, completing a circle of illogic that treats decisions with outcomes no one wants as beyond debate.In the real world, 42% of women who obtain an abortion live below the poverty line. Twenty-seven percent are more than 100% below the poverty line. Six in ten women seeking an abortion are already mothers. Most cite as reasons for terminating their pregnancy wanting to finish school, fear of losing their jobs, or wanting to take care of the families they are already raising on limited resources. Study after study shows that poor women who are denied abortion are much more likely to remain trapped in poverty, much more likely to be unemployed and much more likely to remain with domestic abusers.
We cannot have a real conversation about lifting American women out of poverty without talking about the economic barriers women face in trying to access basic reproductive health care, including abortion.
The connection between reproductive health care and economic fortunes could hardly be clearer. The World Health Organization has found that when women get access to comprehensive health care, they do better on almost every other socio-economic indicator, from education to financial security. That’s one reason that the United Nations Population Fund has designated access to safe voluntary family planning a fundamental human right. Similarly, the United Nations considers lack of access to abortion – a forced pregnancy – to be a form of torture.
Yet, here in America, we are seeing politicians more committed to imposing their morals on those women struggling the most, at the expense of their personal freedom and economic security. While these bills are different, they show an alarming similarity in the obsession of the GOP to force a vote on abortion bans at every turn, even if it threatens critical legislation to do so.Anti-choice extremists see dual value in forcing votes that reconfirm and expand the Hyde Amendment’s outdated and damaging assertion that poor women should not have access to abortion: They force pro-choice legislators to undercut their own values by taking these votes over and over, and they continue to normalize a punitive policy specifically targeted at poor women. And GOP leadership would rather see survivors of trafficking get no help at all than allow women to determine the help that is best for them.
It’s critical that the events of the last few weeks lead us to a genuine conversation about overturning the Hyde Amendment. Americans do not believe that constitutional rights and guaranteed freedoms should come with a price tag. This is not what our country stands for and poor women should not be asked to give up their freedoms so that a minority has its extreme ideology affirmed.
Ilyse Hogue is President of NARAL Pro-Choice America.