The Hyde Amendment Hurts Poor Women of Color Most

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Tenisha Martin, holding her daughter Maddie, yells "black lives matter" at a town hall meeting in North Las Vegas on August 12, 2015. Jessica Arons writes that the Hyde Amendment has terrible real-life consequences for those who need to end a pregnancy. According to one study, a woman who wants to get an abortion but cannot is more likely to end up in poverty than one who can. David Becker

For years, labels such as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” have been bandied about on the abortion issue with certain political meanings, but they often lack substance for the average person.

While the labels resonate for some, many people do not put themselves in either category, while others may even identify as both.

Indeed, some of my closest friends have struggled with whether to support pro-life politicians who oppose abortion but also seek to dismantle the social safety net, or pro-choice lawmakers who favor abortion rights but also advocate for affordable, quality child care, food assistance and universal health care.

Why the confusion? One reason is that politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of using rhetoric that does not accurately reflect their policy stances. Another is that voters typically think of the abortion issue in terms of values, not laws.

The Hyde Amendment, which denies insurance coverage of abortion for low-income people enrolled in Medicaid, provides a prime example of this disconnect.

Many politicians who call themselves pro-life actually want to outlaw abortion entirely. But, unable to do so, they have settled for incremental strategies that slowly chip away at the right to abortion by cutting off access to the service ( i.e., making it unaffordable for poor people).

Conversely, some lawmakers who identify as pro-choice assert that they support the constitutional right to abortion but have voted for the Hyde Amendment, saying they agree “taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay” for it.

The result: We have been saddled with the Hyde Amendment for decades. This measure, voted upon annually each time Congress approves the federal budget, turns 40 at the end of September. And that is 40 years too many.

The Hyde Amendment has terrible real-life consequences for those who need to end a pregnancy. According to one study, a woman who wants to get an abortion but cannot is more likely to end up in poverty than one who can.

In that same study, more than half of the women who got an abortion spent more than one-third of their personal monthly income on medical and travel costs.

Women of color are particularly burdened by the Hyde Amendment, as they are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty, enrolled in Medicaid and at the highest risk for unintended pregnancy.

Most people, even those opposed to abortion, can see how unfair this policy is. Preserving access to abortion care for the wealthy while intentionally denying it to the poor is one of the most morally bankrupt positions one can take.

And yet that is exactly the strategy that was pursued by the measure’s sponsor. Former U.S. Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) admitted:

I certainly would 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.

Yet if a right exists—even one you may disagree or feel discomfort with—it should exist for everyone. The whole point of guaranteeing a constitutional right is to ensure that all people can exercise that right, regardless of their income or where they live.

Moreover, the actual impact of this policy should be deeply troubling for anyone who believes in economic justice. There are a number of policies that would help families achieve and maintain economic security: a living wage, paid sick and family leave, supplemental nutrition (i.e., food stamps) and decent housing, to name but a few. And access to a full range of pregnancy-related care, including abortion, should be on this list.

Too many families are teetering on the brink of poverty or are already there. An unintended pregnancy can upend what little economic stability they have. Abortion care is an essential piece of an economic security agenda and cannot be left out of any serious effort to address poverty.

That said, all people should be able to have the children they want and raise them with dignity, no matter their income, and our policies should reflect such values by providing meaningful support to the families that need it.

But it is up to individuals to decide whether and when to have a child, not politicians. And they should not exploit a woman’s poverty to coerce her into having a child when she has made a different decision for herself.

You don’t have to support abortion rights to oppose the Hyde Amendment. You just have to believe in fairness and dignity for all people, including those struggling to get by.

Jessica Arons is the president and CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which works to improve access to existing and emerging reproductive technologies.