On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August, the All Above All tour bus parked in a busy plaza in the heart of downtown Oakland, California. Around it, activists and advocates milled about handing out literature, collecting petition signatures and attempting to build the ranks of people fighting to secure access to abortion for low-income women.
The bus, which began its national tour in Los Angeles this month, and the coalition behind it are part of the latest effort to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which for nearly four decades has banned the use of federal funds for abortion and limited the options available women who depend on Medicaid for their healthcare coverage.
The ban’s real intent—reversing Roe v. Wade to the greatest extent possible—has been clear from the beginning. After the budget amendment’s passage in 1976, Republican Representative Henry Hyde said, “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.”
Advocates for poor women and women of color have been trying to repeal the Hyde Amendment ever since, arguing that a person’s income level shouldn’t dictate her decision whether to become a parent. Currently, about 9 million women of reproductive age are Medicaid beneficiaries, and advocates use that number to quantify how many are denied access to abortion. Using a bus tour with stops in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and a social media campaign, the fifty-plus organizations that make up the coalition want to push a conversation about Hyde into mainstream conversations about abortion rights and eventually into the halls of Congress.
Legislative pushes for repeal have failed in the past, since even Democrats who are otherwise in favor of abortion rights have been unwilling to challenge anti-choice framing that’s put “taxpayer-funded abortion” out of bounds. That’s why a central goal this campaign is to mobilize elected officials who lead on issues of choice but who rarely talk about the need to repeal Hyde, Kalpana Krishnamurthy, policy director at a supporting organization called Forward Together, told me.
“The Hyde Amendment has never been a rigorous part of the pro-choice agenda,” Krishnamurthy said. “We want to make sure that our friends and allies know that it’s a new day and it’s time to take this on.”
It’s a new day in part because of the Affordable Care Act and the opportunity it has created through Medicaid expansion for more women and families to access healthcare. (In addition to advocating for Hyde’s repeal, campaign participants are also calling on states to repeal bans on abortion coverage in the healthcare exchanges set up under the ACA.) But the time also feels right because a new generation is bumping up against the challenge of not having employer-based insurance coverage, and so finding itself susceptible to restrictions on abortion coverage. That’s why the bus, with its neon-green lettering and exhortations to “be bold” and “be brave,” strives to have a youthful appeal. At the stop in Oakland, people who gathered were encouraged to take photos of themselves expressing support and share them on social media using one of the campaign’s hashtags. The formal part of the program—during which Representative Barbara Lee told the crowd, “It’s the street heat that’s going to matter” on repealing Hyde—opened with the reading of stories about individuals’ struggles to raise the money for their abortions.
“The tactics matter, and the tactics speak to a new generation,” Krishnamurthy said. Another of those tactics involves gathering petition signatures for local initiatives along the way and bringing those supporters into a conversation about Hyde. So in California, advocates also circulated a petition in support of a paid sick leave bill.
California, one of seventeen states that use their own funds to cover abortion for people on Medicaid, is the right place to draw the connection to the myriad pressures facing poor families. Women there still struggle to pay for childcare, travel or a place to stay when they make the decision to have an abortion.
“The funds for the actual abortion is a start,” Poonam Dreyfus-Pai told me. She serves on the board of ACCESS, an Oakland-based hotline that provides Californians with reproductive health information.
It’s time for legislators to start talking about the exclusion that low-income families have faced for decades, Dreyfus-Pai said. “Roe does not mean as much with Hyde in place.”