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New Hope For a Woman's Right to Choose

The Hyde Amendment has prevented federal funding of abortion services to low-income women for three decades. Now that its namesake has left Congress, pro-choicers are campaigning to dismantle it.
 
 
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As the new members of the 110th Congress took the oath of office Thursday, pro-choice groups saw reason to hope.

Not only will a party more friendly to reproductive privacy control Congress, Thursday's swearing-in ceremonies also meant the official end of the long political career of Rep. Henry Hyde, 82, a Republican from Chicago's northwest suburbs who has carried the legislative torch for the anti-choice movement for more than three decades.

To mark Hyde's retirement, a coalition of pro-choice groups teamed up in October to launch "The Hyde Campaign: 30 Years is Enough," a public relations effort designed to raise awareness about the effects of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bars the federal government from funding abortion through Medicaid. The campaign aims to pressure state and federal lawmakers to repeal the public-funding ban.

"It's a real lightning rod for bringing people together to say, 'We're getting rid of him, let's get rid of the amendment as well,'" said Marlene Fried, a board member of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a Boston group that raises money to help low-income women pay for abortions. "It's a great time to make the challenge and to also educate people."

More than 50 groups, including local affiliates of Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, have joined the effort. National Network of Abortion Funds spokesperson Sarah Horsley said the campaign has also generated financial contributions and media coverage about the ban.

The 30 Years is Enough Campaign will continue throughout the year, Horsley said, with coalition members participating in a conference call on Jan. 17 to discuss strategies in the wake of the 2006 midterm elections.

Horsley also cited several upcoming events, including a Jan. 11 discussion about the Hyde Amendment in New York City, a San Francisco pro-choice demonstration on Jan. 20 and a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23, the day after the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion.

Lobbying Timed to Roe Anniversary

That day, members of the New York-based National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health will hand-deliver to lawmakers more than 2,000 postcards urging the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Afterwards, the institute and other allies will hold a panel discussion about the impact of the Hyde Amendment on women of color.

In 1976 Hyde spearheaded the "Hyde Amendment," which inspired later laws that expanded the funding ban to additional federal health care programs. Collectively, those laws affect female members of the military and their families, Peace Corps volunteers, federal prisoners, Native Americans, women who receive federal disability payments and some federal employees through restrictions on their health coverage.

The Hyde Amendment has been attached to an annual appropriations bill every year since it was first signed into law and has never been defeated. The current version of the measure makes exceptions for victims of rape and incest and for those whose life is in danger from a physical condition.

The Hyde Amendment survived a court challenge in 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. McRae that federal and state governments are not obligated to provide funds for abortion services.

In the three decades since passage of the Hyde Amendment, between 18 and 35 percent of Medicaid-eligible women who would have had abortions if funding had been available instead carried their pregnancies to term, according to Ipas, an abortion rights group in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Women make up 70 percent of adult beneficiaries of Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. In 2004, Medicaid provided health care coverage to 1 in 10 women and 1 in 5 low-income women, according to the center. The program also pays for 37 percent of all births.

An abortion costs an average of $468 in the first trimester and rises to an average of $774 at 16 weeks and $1,179 at 20 weeks, according to a 2005 report from the National Network of Abortion Funds. These figures do not include related costs for travel, accommodations and child care.

States Have Followed

States have followed Hyde's lead over the last three decades. Currently, 33 states ban the use of state funds for abortion except in limited circumstances.

But some activists' expectations are guarded.

"I don't think anyone's thinking that we can just walk into this new Congress and have abortion services be No. 1 on their agendas," said Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

The ban affects the most marginalized of women, who vote in relatively low numbers and who have little time to spend lobbying lawmakers for their rights, Fried said. Consequently, lawmakers are under little pressure to bow to their agendas.

Democrats cannot be counted on to repeal the ban, even though the party officially backs abortion rights and claims to support the poor and communities of color, Fried said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has not put the issue on her agenda, Fried noted, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, opposes abortion rights.

Democrats Reluctant

The reluctance to repeal the ban reaches into the Democrats' rank and file.

"There are some pretty adamant pro-choice Congress members that just feel strongly that the Hyde Amendment needs to stay in place," an organizer who works for one of the groups involved in the 30 Years is Enough Campaign said on the condition of anonymity. "Some of their answers have been, 'Well, the American public feels that Medicaid is already an entitlement program. If you tie abortion into it, they'll be less inclined to expand Medicaid services.'"

Most national women's rights and reproductive rights groups aren't even pressing the issue, Fried added. Today, the pro-choice movement is focused on preserving the basic legal right to abortion rather than expanding access to it, she added.

Fried and others see the best opportunity for short-term change at the state level.

In Illinois, Iowa, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, local grassroots activists are working to provide fuller coverage for low-income women who seek abortions and who are victims of rape or incest or whose lives are in danger. They hope their efforts will eventually lead to the repeal of their states' versions of the Hyde Amendment.

Activists are further along in Maine, where state legislators have already introduced a bill to repeal the ban. It has the support of Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and leaders in the state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

"The reason we feel optimistic here is the reproductive rights supporters did very well at the ballot box this fall and increased the pro-choice majority in both House and Senate," said Chris Quint, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England in Williston, Vt. "We felt this was the year to go forward. We felt the stars were in alignment."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

 
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