The Hyde Amendment: Disproportionately Affecting Minority Women Since 1976

hyde amendment
Pro-choice and pro-life protestors outside of the Supreme Court. Source: Alex Wong, Getty

In 1976, just three years after the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Roe v. Wade, Republican congressman Henry Hyde attached a little-known amendment to a Health and Human Services appropriations bill that would shift the course of reproductive justice in the United States for decades to come. The Hyde Amendment banned the use of federal funds within the Department of Health and Human Services for providing abortions, with limited exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and endangerment of the mother’s life. Despite arguments against the amendment from women’s rights activists, reproductive justice non-profits, and organizations like the ACLU, Democratic and Republican politicians alike have continued to support the amendment’s passage, often due to political negotiations rather than personal convictions. Though this may seem innocuous, the tragedy of the Hyde Amendment is that it disproportionately affects the lives of some of America’s most vulnerable—impoverished women, often in minority communities, who rely on Medicaid and can least afford paying for abortions out-of-pocket.

Many feminist concerns of the 21st Century (particularly the work/life balance issue popularly addressed by figures like Sheryl Sandberg and Barnard College president Debora Spar) are framed in the context of the lives of middle-and upper-class white women. But in sharp contrast to the debates around “leaning in,” reproductive justice is highly intersectional and cannot be divorced from racism, classism, and poverty. The relationship between abortion and race has always been fraught by tensions, referenced in advertisements from pro-life groups with incendiary headlines like “Black children are in danger,” “Abortion: #1 Killer of African-Americans,” and, most controversially, “Black children are an endangered species.” An entire website, blackgenocide.org, exists to stem the “holocaust of abortion and the attack centered on the family unit.” No such uproar surrounds abortions for white women. When was the last time you saw a “White children are in danger” billboard?

Although abortion rates are higher among African-American and Hispanic women than among white women, this is by no means a “holocaust” engineered by eugenicists. Rather, according to the Guttmacher Institute, it reflects the “particular difficulties that many women in minority communities face in accessing high-quality contraceptive services.” The 2002 National Survey of Family Growth supports these conclusions, finding an alarming relationship between the rate of contraceptive use, income, and race. The survey discovered that “12% of women earning less than 150% of the FPL [Federal Poverty Level] were not using contraception, compared to 9% of those earning more than 300% of the FPL…Even when using the same method of contraception, minority and poor women experience higher rates of method failure and discontinuation.” In short, the odds are stacked against many women in minority communities before a pregnancy even ensues. Thus, restricting women’s access to abortions is not only political control of women’s bodies—it further institutionalizes racism within the reproductive health system. Upholding the Hyde Amendment means upholding a system where pregnancy is effectively a punishment: a punishment for being a poor, minority woman who dares to have sex. And if we take the definition of sexual health to be, as World Health Organization defined 2006, “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence,” by this very definition sexual health is inaccessible to millions of American women.

A large part of that inaccessibility stems from cost. The price of an abortion proves prohibitive for many. The median cost of a surgical abortion at 10 weeks is $470, and the median cost for a medication abortion is $490 (Guttmacher). Someone working a California minimum-wage job at $9 per hour would have to work for over 52 hours to pay for a surgical abortion, and over 54 hours for a medication abortion—not to mention food, rent, and other living costs. The cost is such that when the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to uphold the Hyde Amendment in 1980, Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented, “The Hyde Amendment [is] designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion. [F]or women eligible for Medicaid—poor women—denial of a Medicaid-funded abortion is equivalent to denial of legal abortion altogether.” This is not an insignificant number of women as Medicaid finances 40% of all births in the United States.

The link between minority women, low socioeconomic status, and high rates of unintended pregnancy is well established. We cannot afford to effectively force women in the most vulnerable strata of society to have pregnancies they do not want by compromising their ability to access safe and affordable abortions. In a nation with a lack of government-mandated paid maternity leave or public daycare, unwanted pregnancy is a surefire way to trap people in the cycle of poverty. It’s worth remembering that to be legitimate, the reproductive justice debate must be inclusive of the experiences and challenges of poor and minority women as they are the most vulnerable to deliberately racist government policies. More broadly, overturning the Hyde Amendment is a social justice issue that should weigh heavily on the American conscience.