Abortion rights supporters outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s only commercial abortion clinic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
The reproductive rights movement is often stuck playing defense: doing its best to fight back against the proliferation of anti-choice restrictions, but failing to push policies that would expand access to abortion. Thirty-seven years after the Hyde Amendment stripped poor women of Medicaid coverage for abortion—and turned abortion into a legal right that was out of reach for many—the movement is back on offense.
A new campaign to fight bans on abortion coverage, All* Above All: United to Restore and Sustain Abortion Coverage for Low-Income Women, is harnessing the energy of supporters who are ready to take a stand against Hyde. All* Above All uses grassroots and online organizing to motivate policymakers to stop attacks on coverage and, ultimately, overturn the Hyde Amendment. The campaign is also protecting policies in the fifteen states that provide state Medicaid coverage of abortion for low-income women. I see urgency sweeping reproductive rights and justice groups—and a new commitment to put the lives of poor women, women of color, and young women center stage in a way that was unthinkable a few years ago. A movement that was primarily focused on not losing more ground is now setting its sights on ensuring that every woman can make and carry out her own decision about abortion.
Why is the moment ripe now, when abortion access has been a too-often neglected front in the struggle for reproductive rights since Hyde was first passed?
Over the past few years, a changing political climate has presented new possibilities for the abortion funding fight. The rising electorate of people of color, young people and white unmarried women, along with the Occupy movement, has shifted the terrain and crystallized national unease with steadily deepening inequality—and brought into stark relief the disconnect between having a legal right, and having the resources to exercise it.
The losses for abortion rights in healthcare reform also rekindled outrage among advocates. In the public debate about abortion coverage Congress and the Obama administration failed over and over to acknowledge the needs of poor women and women of color whose lives and futures were at stake. Foes of abortion rights extracted major concessions that resulted in burdensome requirements for coverage in the new insurance marketplaces and opened the door to virtual elimination of coverage of abortion in twenty-three states. When the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) partnered with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health to organize a national convening on abortion access for poor women post–healthcare reform, virtually every group connected to abortion rights wanted to be in the room. The meeting launched a working group, drew more and more advocates to the table, and has now grown into the All* Above All campaign.
Led by women of color, young people, and reproductive health and justice groups, this diverse coalition is engaging the broad base of supporters, with a focus on reaching the rising electorate. A poll of voters commissioned by NNAF for the coalition’s internal strategic purposes demonstrates that people of color, voters making under $30,000 a year, young people and white unmarried women object strongly to unfair treatment in access to abortion based on income.
But it’s not simply new political realities that have pried open doors long locked shut. The reproductive rights and justice movements have come of age in important ways since Hyde’s initial passage. Women of color reproductive justice activists hastened the exit of the old “privacy” and “choice” frameworks that never could speak to the structural barriers—racism, economic inequity and discrimination against women—that compromise women’s ability to make decisions about their pregnancies and have the families they want. They articulated and fought for an agenda that did not focus on abortion alone but linked it to the conditions of women’s lives. Using a human rights framework, they enabled activists to talk about what is necessary for justice, dignity, and freedom for women of color, low-income women, and all of us. This is the powerful context in which All* Above All fights for abortion coverage in Medicaid, a context that speaks to racial and economic justice, names the disproportionate impact on women of color and engages social justice advocates from many movements.
Twenty years of abortion funding work that testifies to the daily harm done by the Hyde Amendment to low-income women and women of color has also made its mark. As NNAF completes two decades of frontline activism and coalition-building to overturn Hyde, we’ve seen the stories of advocates and women seeking assistance to afford abortion permeate. Our internal poll of voters’ views shows that three out of five now recognize that there are major financial barriers to abortion access for low-income women.
In fact, the need has continued to grow over the years. Our network of 103 abortion funds received over 100,000 calls for help last year alone (and was able to help 28,000 women). We give financial assistance to help cover the cost of an abortion, and as clinic restrictions proliferate, offer travel and lodging for women going long distances to reach providers. As I write this, activists in Texas are joining us in droves to help create a new travel network for women in the state.
A generation of young activists working in the abortion funds across the country is also transforming the movement. Abortion funds are one place where young activists can often immediately take leadership and make significant contributions. So many activists who have come through the ranks of the abortion funds now serve as staff and on boards of reproductive rights and justice organizations, remaking the movement as a whole.
The experience of daily contact with women who need an abortion but can’t pay for it has changed all of us who do this work. I will never forget the woman from Texas who told me her family didn’t have enough food for weeks because they needed to use that money for her abortion. “My younger sisters eat a lot,” she said. “They like to have three full meals a day and snacks, too.” As if the problem was only because they were such big eaters—as if everyone doesn’t need three full meals a day.
The new coalition builds on the organizing efforts that came before it. The National Black Women’s Health Project spearheaded the very first campaign to repeal Hyde in 1994, called CARE, the Campaign for Abortion and Reproductive Equity. NNAF joined the campaign and six years later, organized CARE 2000, which shone a light on both the Hyde Amendment and punitive welfare reform. In 2004, NNAF organized the “Access and Equality” Contingent for the March for Women’s Lives, and in 2006, the “Hyde: 30 Years Is Enough,” campaign. Some activists told their own stories of struggling to raise money for an abortion, including former NNAF board president Toni Bond Leonard. Bond Leonard, who is the founder of Black Women for Reproductive Justice, spoke to allies, in congressional briefings, at press conferences, and in meetings with the White House.
The campaign will keep building a broader movement of those most affected by the Hyde Amendment. NNAF knows that the women who need assistance today are partners in this work and we are committed to creating the conditions that can support more women to tell their own stories and participate as leaders.
Thirty-seven years is way too long to wait for fair treatment. But a dedicated, inclusive coalition has stepped up to put Hyde into the dustbin of history where it belongs. On this twentieth anniversary of NNAF, let this be a call to action. For those already in the fight and those waiting for a reason to join, this is the time.
Join the new coalition. Sign up to take a stand and tell Congress you support access for every woman.
Sign the petition to repeal the Hyde Amendment and get connected.
Learn more about what denying abortion coverage really means.