Women’s Health Advocates Tell Congress Medicaid Should Pay for Abortions

December 9, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro speaks at a Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Witnesses at a congressional hearing Tuesday clashed over whether to continue authorizing a law that blocks federal funds from being used to pay for abortions.

Two doctors said withholding the funds was unfair to low income and minority women who sometimes are compelled to carry unwanted pregnancies to birth, thereby making it more difficult for them to raise themselves out of poverty.

Anti-abortion activist Christina Bennett disagreed, saying eliminating the Hyde Amendment “will encourage abortion.”

“For 44 years, the Hyde Amendment has protected vulnerable women,” she said.

She also disagreed that women of color endure an injustice by not being able to use Medicaid money to pay for abortions.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services is preparing a congressional budget that it plans to present to Congress for a vote soon.

For the first time since Congress approved the original Hyde Amendment in 1976, the subcommittee is considering eliminating it from reauthorization in its budget. So far, Congress never has failed to reauthorize the law in each year’s budget.

Democrats who prefer to abolish the law say they are responding to increasingly restrictive state laws on abortion. They say the restrictions create inequalities between affluent women who can afford abortions and low-income women who cannot afford them.

They are drawing some of their support from President-elect Joe Biden, who said last year he agrees it might be time to get rid of the Hyde Amendment.

The Hyde Amendment bars federal funds for abortion except to save the life of a woman or if a pregnancy is caused by incest or rape. Before the updated Hyde Amendment took effect in 1980, about 300,000 abortions a year were performed using taxpayer funds, according to congressional reports.

These abortions were paid through the Medicaid health care program for low-income persons. Medicaid serves about 16 million women in the United States, including one in five women of reproductive age.

Herminia Palacio, president of the New York-based reproductive health policy research organization Guttmacher Institute, said 75% of abortion patients are low income and most of them are women of color.

“The Hyde Amendment is a racist policy,” Palacio said.

The coronavirus pandemic has further eroded pregnant women’s finances, making it more likely they will be unable to get the abortions and health care they need, she said.

“Black and indigenous people are astonishingly more likely to die,” Palacio said.

Others will be forced to remain in abusive relationships for financial reasons or be unable to carry on careers that might help them emerge from poverty, according to Palacio and other witnesses.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, said, “Women forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are four more times more likely to live below the federal poverty level.”

She added, “The Hyde Amendment has failed women of color.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said abortion was not merely a health care issue.

“Put simply, abortion capitulates to despair,” Cole said.

He also said any proposals to phase out the law are unlikely to succeed in Congress.

“I don’t think opinions on this issue are likely to change,” Cole said.

In 2018, 58% of Americans surveyed in a Harvard University poll said abortion should be legal in most cases, while 37% said it should be illegal.

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