Today, Roe v. Wade remains celebrated by women’s rights activists as a definitive victory for reproductive rights. The national legalization of abortion followed heightened awareness of the pervasive, often fatal trend of self-induced abortions, typically attempted by women of impoverished immigrant families who lacked the means to raise additional children. Restricted access did not prevent abortions from happening, but only further endangered the public. A 2009 study found that today, women are much more likely to die from the procedure in countries where it is illegal compared to those where it is not. Yet the issue remains controversial to this day, primarily due to religious arguments around the morality of abortion. These arguments bred the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from going toward abortion services for women on Medicaid, to respect people of faith who oppose abortion and do not want their tax dollars contributing to it.
This September, as the Hyde Amendment turns 40 years old, it is worth considering the many American women the landmark case of Roe v. Wade now excludes due to the 1976 passage of the amendment, and how relevant Roe v. Wade is to low-income women who cannot afford the rights it supposedly guarantees. After all, while it is within everyone’s rights to not agree with abortion, it is simultaneously within everyone’s rights to bodily autonomy, which should not be an economic privilege but a fundamental human right.
The pro-choice movement recognizes time and again that everyone has the right to lead a life rooted in faith, but the religious values of individuals should not dictate the law in any society that claims not to be theocratic. All laws, including laws regarding taxation and public funding, should be based on the promotion of public health, the availability of constitutional and human rights for people of all socioeconomic classes and objective science regarding fetal development and viability.
The existence of the Hyde Amendment highlights an unnecessary sensitivity and double standard in the treatment the government affords people of faith. For example, anti-war progressives who opposed the Iraq War still had no choice but to watch their tax dollars pay for the deaths of thousands of born, living human beings. Opponents of war have always been denied the privilege of having their consciences respected, where, in contrast, the personal religious views of some citizens today dictate whether or not thousands of women have basic human right to terminate a pregnancy, forcing them to give birth and remain trapped in poverty.
Another issue raised by the Hyde Amendment is its reinforcement of the stigma around abortion through casting the medical procedure as something that could shock the conscience rather than regarding it as any other medical procedure covered by Medicaid insurance. Objectively speaking, abortion is a highly safe procedure which women are 14 times less likely to die from than giving birth, according to 2012 research by Columbia University. Implying that it in any way is tantamount to murder has frequently put women and abortion providers in harm’s way by inspiring retaliatory attacks from extremists such as the shooter Robert Dear, who attacked Colorado Planned Parenthood in 2015.
Ultimately, the reach of the Hyde Amendment does not stop at abortion services. Regulations on federal funding toward research on abortion infringe on the intellectual freedoms of medical professionals, and restricting their ability to research and improve the modern abortion procedure affects the living standards of all women. Still, from its earliest days, abortion has to an extent been a class issue as a procedure predominantly sought by women, often married, without access to contraception and lacking the financial means to raise children. Today, regardless of a woman’s class, the law recognizes the rights of any woman, no matter how many children she can afford to raise, to have an abortion, but this is not the case for women on Medicaid due to the Hyde Amendment.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Whole Women’s Health in the landmark case of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which ruled unconstitutional a series of medically unnecessary regulations placed on abortion clinics, forcing many to shut down. The regulations struck down as undue burdens to women’s access to abortion reflect modern efforts to undercut abortion rights by placing legal obstacles around the procedure through closing clinics, mandating waiting periods and biased, misleading counseling sessions, and through the Hyde Amendment, creating economic barriers in the guise of protecting religious liberty.
By prioritizing the personal beliefs of people of faith, legitimizing those beliefs through the law, and according these beliefs authority over the rights of low-income women, the Hyde Amendment creates a hierarchy elevating anti-choice religious peoples, and rendering low-income women second-class citizens. And as second-class citizens, the privileges of Roe v. Wade are meaningless to them.