With Biden, advocates sense momentum for lifting abortion funding ban

Greg Nash

Abortion rights advocates are pinning their hopes on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to help end a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for abortion — a policy he supported for more than 40 years.

Biden reversed his position by denouncing the so-called Hyde amendment last year, but its future doesn’t just depend on who wins the White House. Democrats will also need to make major gains in the Senate, keep control of the House and gain the support of more moderate Democratic lawmakers on a divisive issue.

Advocates nonetheless feel there has never been more momentum for ending Hyde, which prevents federal programs like Medicaid from paying for abortions, a restriction that disproportionately affects low-income people and women of color.

“There’s lots of evidence that the current is moving in our direction,” said Ronald Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), pointing to growing support among congressional Democrats, Biden’s reversal on the issue and the primary defeats of anti-abortion Democrats like Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who supported the ban.

“We see ourselves as being very much within striking distance of the finish line on this.”

The Hyde amendment is even more harmful during the pandemic, advocates argue, as more people sign up for Medicaid after losing their jobs and the recession makes it harder for some to have children. People of color have been disproportionately sickened by COVID-19, and the moment of reckoning in the country around police violence and inequities in the health care system are not separate from the fight to end the Hyde amendment, Newman said. 

The ban has long been criticized by abortion-rights groups as racist and classist since it puts the procedure out of reach for millions of low-income Medicaid enrollees who are more likely to be Black and Hispanic because of social and economic inequalities.

The ACLU and abortion rights group All* Above All Action Fund are now pressing Biden to release a plan explaining how he would make Hyde a thing of the past if he wins the presidency.

“A commitment is a good first step, but we need a concrete plan,” said Morgan Hopkins, director of political strategies at All* Above All Action Fund, one of the groups leading the fight to end the Hyde amendment. 

“Women of color have been trying to end the Hyde amendment for more than 40 years. We’ve heard commitments before and we’re done waiting.”

Former President Obama, during his White House run in 2008, said he opposed the Hyde amendment, but his budget requests to Congress consistently included it. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, regularly voted for spending measures with the abortion restriction.

Obama also supported a provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act that prohibited the use of government subsidies for plans that cover abortion in a move to gain the support of anti-abortion Democrats.

“I think now that we’re 10 years after that point and we have a public commitment from House leadership, that this is the last year of the Hyde amendment, we won’t be political bargaining chips anymore,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said Biden’s written plan should include promises to send budget requests to Congress without the Hyde amendment, veto bills that include abortion restrictions and sign legislation offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would require federal programs pay for abortions.

A Biden campaign spokesperson declined to provide a comment when reached by The Hill.

Biden has a complicated history with the Hyde amendment, having supported it for his entire time in Congress and subsequent tenure in the Obama administration. He said last year he still supported the Hyde amendment, but quickly reversed after facing fierce backlash from abortions rights groups.

Even if Biden wins in November, the Hyde amendment’s future still depends on what happens in House and Senate races. Democrats are expected to keep control of the House, and some race forecasts have them well positioned to flip the Senate.

But any effort to end Hyde would face stiff opposition from Senate Republicans, who could block funding legislation even if Democrats hold a single-digit majority in the chamber.

If Democrats do win the White House and Congress, the effort to end Hyde could also face roadblocks from moderate lawmakers in swing districts.

“There are of course still folks in districts who may feel concerned — our frontliners — who may feel as though they have a harder time taking votes on repealing Hyde,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood.

“And yet, they stand very clearly with the issue and we’re making sure our work is to support them and make sure they understand that we will fight incredibly hard for our champions.”

In just 10 years, the Democratic Party has shifted dramatically on the issue of abortion, advocates argue.

“I think it’s really night and day, quite honestly,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The anti-abortion Democrats who Obama needed to appease in 2008 are now mostly gone, including Lipinski, who lost his primary earlier this year to businesswoman Marie Newman, a candidate endorsed by abortion rights groups.

The 116th Congress is often referred to by abortion rights advocates as the first “pro-choice majority.” First-term lawmakers like Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have brought new energy to the movement, joining veterans such as Lee and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Some of that energy is measurable.

A bill introduced by Lee that would require federal health programs cover abortion and prevent state and local governments from restricting abortion coverage in private insurance plans has been co-sponsored by 181 House Democrats.

When the bill was first introduced in 2015, it had fewer than 100 co-sponsors.

A similar bill, sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), was introduced in the Senate for the first time last year, but 21 Democrats have not signed on to the bill.

Democratic control of a chamber doesn’t necessarily guarantee the removal of Hyde, though, as evidenced by the past two years. Even with Democrats in control of the House, the party has kept the Hyde amendment in appropriations bills, outraging abortion rights advocates.

Retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the House Appropriations Committee chairwoman, has opposed the Hyde amendment for decades and is a co-sponsor of Lee’s bill. But Democratic leaders conceded that it’s fruitless to strip Hyde out of spending bills when Republicans control the Senate and White House.

President Trump has vowed to veto any bills that would undo “pro-life” protections.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on health spending and is in the running to wield the gavel for the full committee next year, is also a strong opponent of Hyde and has vowed to remove it once Democrats control the White House and Congress.

But even abortions rights leaders acknowledge that winning the trifecta does not guarantee victory.

“We’re at the tipping point internally. Does that mean we have everyone on board? No,” Hogue said.

“But we’re going to keep making progress, and this is something we’re committed to getting done in the next Congress.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee Diana DeGette Donald Trump Jan Schakowsky Joe Biden Nita Lowey Rosa DeLauro Tammy Duckworth

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