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Repeal Hyde Amendment and expand federal funding of abortions | COMMENTARY

U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, takes a time out in his Washington office on Sept. 11, 1998. He was first elected to Congress in 1974 and during his first term wrote an amendment to a spending bill that limits federal funding for abortions except in limited cases. The measure, which became known as the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1980 and has been in effect in various forms since.
U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, takes a time out in his Washington office on Sept. 11, 1998. He was first elected to Congress in 1974 and during his first term wrote an amendment to a spending bill that limits federal funding for abortions except in limited cases. The measure, which became known as the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1980 and has been in effect in various forms since. (1998 Tribune photo by Pete Souza)

As an obstetrician and gynecologist, I believe that all people should be able to access the health care they need.

Though large strides have been made in health care equity in Maryland, people’s ability to get quality health care in our state and across the country still depends largely on where they live, how much money they make, and the resources available to them, all of which are influenced by systemic racism. This is particularly true when it comes to accessing abortion care because of the Hyde Amendment, a law passed by Congress 44 years ago this month prohibiting federal funding for abortion care.

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In my work as a provider of abortion care, I’ve seen firsthand the ways that the Hyde Amendment makes it more difficult for people who need abortions to get them.

I will never forget a couple I met a few years ago; they were both employed by the federal government and had just found out that their much-desired pregnancy had heart and brain defects that were not compatible with life. They drove from two hours away after calling around to seek options to end the pregnancy that they could afford. They were devastated that, because of the Hyde Amendment, the health insurance they paid into would not cover the procedure. Instead, they would be forced to dip into their life savings to end this pregnancy rather than keeping that money to invest in their next child and their future family.

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I am fortunate to practice in Maryland, as our state’s Medicaid programs cover abortion care, which has expanded abortion access for many individuals with low income in our state. Other states, like New York, Illinois and Oregon have similar legislation. But this patchwork approach simply isn’t good enough. It still leaves our federal employees, military members and millions of Medicaid enrollees around the country without this coverage.

The impact of Hyde goes far beyond just determining whether or not someone can get abortion care. These barriers to health care have ripple effects that profoundly and irreparably harm people’s lives. Research shows that people who try to get abortions but are denied care are more likely to experience economic insecurity and physical health problems; being denied an abortion also has a negative impact on any existing or future children these individuals may have.

Amid the ongoing pandemic and struggling economy, it’s clearer than ever: Congress must address this unacceptable disparity in abortion access by passing the EACH Woman Act, which would reverse the Hyde Amendment and guarantee insurance coverage of abortion once and for all.

Some may say that, given everything at stake right now and all the other problems our nation faces, it is not the time to advocate when it comes to abortion. But as a doctor, I have seen firsthand how my patients have continued to need abortions during the pandemic. It is my duty to ensure that all people have the ability to control their own bodies and access the health care they need.

The good news is that momentum is building around repealing Hyde, for several years the EACH Woman Act has been introduced in the House and has now been introduced in the Senate. Public opinion is also on the side of reversing Hyde; a poll from late last year found that 62% of Americans believe Medicaid should cover abortion care.

Repealing Hyde and passing the EACH Woman Act won’t fully solve the problem of inequities in abortion access. Even without Hyde, a vast array of state-level restrictions on abortion mean that people face very different barriers to abortion care depending on where they live, and these obstacles disproportionately affect Black and brown people and people with low incomes. To truly eliminate these disparities, Congress will also need to take action to roll back these restrictions and actively expand abortion access for everyone with legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act. But eliminating Hyde, which has put abortion out of reach for so many for long, is an excellent place to start.

Maryland members of Congress have an opportunity to take meaningful action to expand abortion access and make a major positive difference for my patients and millions of people across the country. It’s time for lawmakers to show that they care about Americans' health, safety and economic well-being, listen to our collective voices and repeal Hyde.

Dr. Jessica K. Lee (JessicaKLeeMD@gmail.com) is an obstetrician and gynecologist in Baltimore and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. All opinions are her own.

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