Two seemingly innocuous pieces of legislation recently ran into unexpected roadblocks in Congress this month: a bill to permanently fix the Medicare doctor-payment formula, and legislation to aid victims of human trafficking.
The culprit in both cases was abortion language that would mirror the infamous Hyde Amendment. Many Democrats insist the provisions must be removed before they vote for either bill. The debate has metastasized so quickly that it’s now holding up the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general; Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would not bring her nomination to a vote until Democrats relent on the human-trafficking bill.
You’ve probably heard of the Hyde Amendment before—the oft-employed shorthand is that it’s the thing that prevents taxpayer dollars from going to abortion services. Ever since 1976, the bill has been a goblin haunting domestic politics, often throwing unrelated debates into chaos.
What if, once and for all, Democrats just got rid of it?
In many ways, the Hyde Amendment’s mythology outpaces its actual effect. As the dispute over these two bills shows, the Hyde Amendment isn’t an all-encompassing federal ban. Otherwise, there would be no fight here, because its principles would automatically be applied.
The Hyde Amendment actually deals mainly with Medicaid dollars, and prevents healthcare providers who have Medicaid patients from providing them abortion services.
This means it has a devastating effect on low-income women. Research has shown that lack of Medicaid funding for abortion services creates serious delays for low-income women seeking help, as they must save money necessary to pay for any procedures. Sixty-seven percent of poor women who had an abortion said they wanted to have it sooner, according to a Guttmacher Institute study. For some, the wait ends up being too long, or the cost is too burdensome—several studies estimate that somewhere between 18 and 35 percent of women on Medicaid continue their pregnancies despite wanting an abortion because the funding isn’t available.
The eponymous Representative Henry Hyde was pretty straightforward about the discrimination that his amendment created when it was enacted. “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,” he said in 1977. “If rich women want to enjoy their high-priced vices, that is their responsibility…that is fine, but not at the taxpayers’ expense,” he said during another debate.