Health Battle Over Abortion Moves to Senate Bill

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pro-choice activists are battling to keep the House's Stupak-Pitts amendment out of the Senate version of the health care bill. In doing so, they find themselves squaring off against an old, nearly forgotten barrier: the 1977 Hyde amendment.

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Paving the Way for Restrictions

For two decades after its passage, Hyde helped pave the way for the expansion of federal funding restrictions on abortion to women in the military, in federal prison, Native Americans, poor residents in D.C., and Peace Corps volunteers.

In 1977 the late Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., explained his vision for the amendment that bears his name.

"I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the…Medicaid bill," he said.

The Hyde amendment suffered multiple blows as lawsuits brought in individual states successfully allowed states to extend abortion coverage through their Medicaid programs.

In light of that, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, recently expressed a widespread view--before the passage of Stupak-Pitts--that Hyde was "ancient history." He also told Women's eNews that opposing sides in Congress had been at a "stalemate" over Hyde for years.

With 23 states using their own funding for abortion in their Medicaid programs, the House Pro-Choice Caucus and other pro-choice groups paid little attention to Hyde as a potential element in health reform politics.

Days before the House vote, however, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops caught pro-choice advocates off guard by rejecting the Capps amendment as insufficiently stringent and citing Hyde as a reason to restrict abortion coverage in health insurance reform. Stupak carried that argument into Congress.

In presenting his amendment on the House floor, Stupak invoked Hyde five times in what opponents say was a deliberate effort to misrepresent his amendment as the status quo on the use of federal funds for abortion.

Hyde Underestimated

In hindsight, Laura MacCleery, director of government relations at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said Hyde was underestimated.

"I think the intention was that we would fight the fight on Hyde another day," she said. "It's obvious now what an advantage it gives anti-choice groups to have the Hyde restrictions in the background."

During the House debate anti-choice advocates, she said, managed to generalize Hyde's restrictions to cover all federal funding for abortion.

The amendment passed, with the help of 64 Democrats, by a vote of 240 to 194.

That leaves pro-choice advocates facing the need to settle an old political score, going back more than two decades.

"We've got to get the codification of Hyde out of our health care because abortion is health care," said NOW's O'Neill.

On Nov. 21, about 100 pro-choice advocates gathered outside the county courthouse in West Chester, Penn., waving signs saying "Keep Abortion Legal" and "Stop the War on Choice."

NOW sponsored the weekend rally to mobilize against the amendment and to support Lois Herr, who's challenging Pitts, Stupak's co-sponsor, in the 2010 elections.

Lisa Wickenheiser, a 34-year-old accounting representative from Ephrata, Penn., said she worries that Stupak-Pitts would jeopardize the reproductive rights of millions of women.

"It's going to stop coverage for middle class and working women," she said. "If we don't stop it now we're going to regret it later."

Julia Marsh is a D.C.-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

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