Today is an anniversary we don’t celebrate. Forty-three years ago, Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment. Some members of Congress, so upset that the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution protects the right to decide whether to have an abortion, took it upon themselves to find a way to deny at least some people that constitutional right. How did they do it? They passed a restriction that limits Medicaid coverage of abortion except in a few limited circumstances, and that restriction (known as the Hyde Amendment) has been renewed every year since. Medicaid provides care to low-income individuals, so guess who is impacted by this restriction?
That’s right, low income people.
And that’s the point of the restriction. The man who led this restriction, Rep. Henry Hyde, didn’t hide the ball on what he was doing. He openly admitted: “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.” Hyde was adamant about his restriction denying women abortion care.
When I think of men like Rep. Hyde making these judgement calls, it makes my skin crawl. What did Rep. Hyde know about what it was like to face an unwanted pregnancy? What did Rep. Hyde know about struggling to make ends meet and facing an unintended pregnancy? What did Rep. Hyde know about our lives at all?
It seems that all he knew is that he wanted to restrict our freedom, equality, and dignity, and was able to do so for low-income individuals.
That’s why it is so important to have Members in Congress who, unlike the Rep. Hydes of the world, do know what our lives are like and fight to protect us precisely because they understand us. When the Hyde Amendment first passed 43 years ago, Congress was overwhelmingly male—just 19 women total— and white—just 16 African American total. While Congress still has a long way to look like the America we live in, we are lucky to have more Members who will fight for us. Members like Rep. Barbara Lee, a lead sponsor of the EACH Woman Act, a bill that would overturn the harmful Hyde Amendment.
Last week, I sat in awe as Rep. Lee spoke powerfully about her commitment to reproductive rights and justice at NARAL’s 50th anniversary dinner. She told us how she had been a young staffer when Congress debated the Hyde Amendment decades ago and committed herself then to overturning the harmful restriction. She told us how she introduced the EACH Woman Act, even though people told her she would never get any support. And she told us how the bill has over 160 cosponsors today!
She also told us her story. Rep. Lee told us that she had an abortion at 15. She told us about the fear she felt being pregnant and crossing into Mexico for the care. That’s what she told us.
And the room was absolutely silent.
Rep. Lee didn’t need to and shouldn’t have to share her personal stories to get her agency and humanity acknowledged or to press for change. And neither should anyone else. And yet it’s disproportionately women, people of color, low-income people, LGBTQ people who continually have to do this. It’s how we force the Henry Hydes to see us. To see our lives.
Rep. Lee told us what we all need to hear, even if she shouldn’t have had to tell us at all.
So here we go. Me, you, and the rest of us, fighting to protect reproductive autonomy to respect the storytellers like Rep. Lee and so many others. To tell them: we hear you and now we fight for you.
Thank you, Rep. Lee for leading the way.