Nearly 40 years ago, when she was a young congressional staffer, Representative Barbara Lee watched as lawmakers cut millions of poor women off from abortion coverage. They did so via a provision barring Medicaid from covering the procedure. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who sponsored the amendment, made little effort to conceal that his was an effort to undercut Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion just three years earlier; nor did he deny his amendment would disparately impact women in poverty. “If rich women want to enjoy their high-priced vices, that is their responsibility…that is fine, but not at the taxpayers’ expense,” he quipped during one debate. Later he 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.”
The amendment’s passage shocked Lee. “It was really earth-shattering for me as a young African-American woman, you know—why this guy would even want to interfere with women’s rights and women’s health-care decisions,” she remembers. After Lee was elected to Congress she served on the House Foreign Affairs committee, with Hyde as chairman. She thought often about how she might convince him that his amendment was hurting women. Eventually, Lee says, “I decided there was no way to convince him of that, so I’m going to just have to work to help try at some point to repeal it, when the political climate was right.”
Lee has waited a long time. Though Hyde is only a temporary provision, Congress dutifully tacks it onto an appropriations bill every year. Lawmakers have extended the abortion coverage ban to other people dependent on public insurance, including military servicemembers, Native Americans, and federal employees. There have been a few attempts to repeal the ban over the years—Bill Clinton tried, in 1993—but in general even pro-choice politicians have preferred not to talk about Hyde.
That’s changed, and rather quickly. Lee, along with Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Diana DeGette, introduced a bill this time last year that would ensure that anyone with federally funded health insurance has coverage for abortion care; they now have more than 115 co-sponsors. Hillary Clinton criticized Hyde directly on the campaign trail for “making it harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.” And, for the first time, the Democratic Party platform draft explicitly calls for repealing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment, which applies to foreign aid—for “full-fledged taxpayer funding of abortion,” to quote one scandalized anti-abortion writer.
“We’re starting to see the ground shift,” says Destiny Lopez, the chair of a coalition called All* Above All formed specifically to advocate for ending the ban on public abortion funding. “After 40 years of this, we can actually see a future where [Hyde] is repealed.”