Pro-choicers aim to lift limits of 40-year-old federal abortion access law

Activists and abortion rights supporters gather in protest of Chicago's annual March for Life chanting, "Our bodies, our lives, our right to survive!" (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

By Anna Foley

In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, the law that placed heavy limitations on using federal money for abortion. The law may have just turned 40, but it’s still facing serious contention today.

Pro-choice advocates say the law is particularly damaging to specific groups of American women and aim to repeal it.

“It has a devastating effect across the country on low-income women, young women, women of color,” said Amy Meeks, a women’s reproductive rights attorney at American Civil Liberties Union Chicago.

Many of those women use Medicaid for their health insurance coverage. So on a federal level, the Hyde Amendment bars them from obtaining abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or a life-threatening condition. However, individual states have the option to expand the conditions of Medicaid-funded abortion services.

So far, 17 states have done so, including Illinois. In 1994, a Cook County judge issued a court order to include medically necessary abortions in services covered by Medicaid.


Despite that order, Illinois actually still pays for very few abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the state only reported 371 publically funded abortions in 2010, the latest figure available. Meeks said the complexity of the state’s reimbursement policy is partly to blame.

“The federal reimbursements create this confusing billing mechanism, so a lot of people have this misconception,” Meeks said. “It leads to Illinois covering very few abortions.”

Nationally, 60 percent of women of reproductive age receiving Medicaid live in states that do not pay for abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

That statistic could soon change with a bill called the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage Health Insurance Act of 2015, or the EACH Woman Act. The bill was introduced in July 2015, and has since amassed 124 co-sponsors.

The EACH Woman Act would require the federal government to provide abortion services through Medicaid, as well as lift state and local restrictions on abortion. Essentially, it would repeal the 40-year-old Hyde Amendment.

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, one of the act’s co-sponsors, called it “proactive legislation.”

“When it was passed, Hyde was seen as untouchable,” Schakowsky said. “It was simply accepted that federal funds could not be used for abortions. But conversations have changed.”

Those conversations have already resulted in national policy changes. The 2016 Democratic Party’s platform explicitly called for repealing the Hyde amendment.

Meeks said the Each WOMAN Act could have tremendous effects in Illinois, as every one out of five women in the state receive Medicaid.


Yet despite support on state and federal levels, the EACH Woman Act’s goal is still polarizing.

“It would be a serious violation of our democratic republic,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-life Action League.

Scheidler said repealing the Hyde Amendment, which was named for its sponsor and former Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, would cause abortion rates to spike in the United States, at the expense of the taxpayer.

“The repeal of Hyde wouldn’t solve any problems,” Scheidler said. “Abortion is promoted more and more as a solution to poor women. If repealed, that would make all of us complicit in abortion.”

Meeks sees a reversal differently.

“It would eliminate misconceptions about what Medicaid really can and cannot do,” she said. “Abortion should be covered regardless of the source of [a woman’s] health care.”

Photo at top: Activists and abortion rights supporters gather in protest of Chicago’s annual March for Life chanting, “Our bodies, our lives, our right to survive!” (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)