After years of watching Republicans in Congress chip away at abortion access, congressional Democrats, including three from Texas, are finally making a move.
Last week, U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee (D-California), Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and 70 Democrat co-sponsors filed House Resolution 2972—dubbed the EACH Woman Act—to repeal the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid and other federal funds from covering abortions. The resolution would also prohibit states from banning coverage for abortion in private health plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. (The Texas Legislature tried that this session, in fact, but the bill ended up dying after some drama between House Republicans).
U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Beto O’Rourke, all Texas Democrats, have signed on to the federal legislation. The bill faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Congress, but even debating the measure could change the tone of the abortion debate among lawmakers.
“For far too long, anti-choice politicians have been interfering [with] women’s health decisions by banning insurance coverage for abortion,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee wrote in a statement. The resolution, she wrote, “will help ensure every woman can make her own decisions about pregnancy, no matter how much she earns, how she’s insured, or where she lives.”
Passed in 1976 as a rider to that year’s Medicaid appropriations bill, the Hyde Amendment bans all federal public funds, including Medicaid and federal employee health insurance, from covering abortions, except when a woman’s life is in danger or she is a victim of rape or incest. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld the measure, finding that the ban does not violate a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. At the time, the justices wrote that “The financial constraints that restrict an indigent woman’s ability to enjoy the full range of constitutionally protected freedom of choice are the product not of governmental restrictions on access to abortions, but rather of her indigency.”
The Guttmacher Institute, which studies national and state abortion and family planning policy, estimates that today, 1 in 4 women who would qualify for a Medicaid-covered abortion end up carrying their pregnancy to term. Others, advocates fear, may turn to unsafe measures to induce their own abortions.
The EACH Woman Act would have a huge impact for poor women in Texas, who tend to also be women of color, supporters of the resolution say. More than 1 million Texans are currently enrolled in Medicaid, and according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 57 percent of them are women, many of whom struggle to provide for their families.
The Hyde Amendment’s grim effects in Texas date back nearly 40 years.
Rosie Jimenez, a single mother living in McAllen, was a 27-year-old college student, a mother of one and a Medicaid recipient. She died of an infection in October 1977, two months after the measure took effect, after obtaining a cheap, illegal abortion when she couldn’t afford a safe, legal one.
In memory of Jimenez and the three other women who died that year under similar circumstances, abortion rights organizations have continuously called for its repeal. Organizations that help women cover the cost of their abortions have also cropped up in Texas, including the Lilith Fund, Texas Equal Access Fund, and the West Fund.
Nan Kirkpatrick, executive director of the TEA Fund, which helps North Texans pay for their procedures, said the EACH Woman Act would have a direct impact on women who call her hotline.
“We hear every day from people who are enrolled in Medicaid and have no coverage for their abortion care, and this bill would make it possible for them to access abortion without calling us for financial assistance,” Kirkpatrick told the Observer in an email. TEA Fund callers are often unemployed or underemployed, she wrote. And now that Texas has lost more than half of its abortion clinics under House Bill 2, longer travel to the nearest provider is adding to the expense.
“The EACH Woman Act will be a complete game changer for people’s ability to make reproductive decisions with autonomy and without having access blocked by lack of resources,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
The Lilith Fund, similar to the TEA Fund, helps Texans in Houston, Central and South Texas pay for their abortions. In 2014, 83 percent of the women the organization helped were women of color, and 72 percent were already mothers.
The EACH Woman Act has support from dozens of abortion rights groups across the country, but in today’s Congress the likelihood of repealing such a far-reaching abortion restriction is slim. Still, supporters see the resolution as a step forward. They’ve been calling on federal lawmakers to file such legislation for years, they say, and at least now some members of Congress are taking action.
“For too long we’ve seen anti-choice lawmakers drive the conversation, and it’s time for those who believe in reproductive freedom to take a proactive approach,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “If nothing else, this gives us a chance to start a conversation about why public funding for all reproductive health care options, including abortion, is essential for people in all parts of the United States, including Texas. Access to options shouldn’t depend on income or zipcode.”