The Ghost of Henry Hyde: The Republicans’ War on Abortion Funding

Henry Hyde

It has been eight years since Henry Hyde’s heart finally gave out at the age of 83. Eight years since mourners gathered on a frosty December day to pay their respects to the late Illinois congressman. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago eulogized him as a man who had “good instincts” about “particular children who have not been born but are alive in their mother’s wombs.” John Boehner, our current soporific Speaker of the House, proclaimed him to be a “devoted husband” who “led by treating all men and women with dignity and respect, regardless of who they were or what they believed.”

“Henry Hyde was not just a congressional hero. He was an American hero. And on a personal note, he was my hero.”

Hagiographies of this nature were so commonplace in newspapers and online articles that one could almost be forgiven for forgetting the various stains on Rep. Hyde’s record. He was, after all, the same Henry Hyde who carried on a five year extramarital affair with an attractive young hairdresser named Cherie Snodgrass; one which only ended after Cherie’s husband Fred confronted Jeannie Hyde about her husband’s philandering. Years later, while this “devoted husband” was hypocritically working to impeach President Clinton, Fred Snodgrass still blamed Hyde for having “broke up” his family. Yet far worse was the havoc his policies wreaked upon millions of women and their families.

Rep. Hyde, a devout Roman Catholic, was a vociferous foe of abortion who publicly lionized Pro-Life Action League founder Joseph Scheidler — the so-called “Godfather” of the pro-life movement whose 1985 handbook, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, became a go-to guide for abortion opponents who wished to forcibly shut down clinics. Referring to Scheidler as a “hero,” Hyde remarked, “There are some people with more courage than others. If people had obstructed entrances to Dachau or Auschwitz, there might have been fewer people incinerated there.”

In 1976, Hyde proposed a rider to the fiscal 1977 appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services which would eliminate a key source of funding for abortion procedures. Known as the “Hyde Amendment,” this provision barred the use of Medicaid funds to reimburse low-income women for the cost of an abortion, with only a limited exception for cases in which the physical health of the mother was endangered. Later incarnations of the Hyde Amendment, namely from the fiscal 1978 version onward, at least added exceptions for rape and incest, in addition to physical health. Those exceptions were still limited. The fiscal 1980 Hyde Amendment, for example, provided that an exception would be granted for rape or incest so long as the victim promptly reported the crime to “a law enforcement agency or public health service.”

The purpose of such a provision was to undercut the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, decided three years prior, and Rep. Hyde appeared comfortable with using poor women as pawns in order to do so. When it came time to tack the Hyde Amendment to the next year’s appropriations bill, Hyde brushed aside charges of classism by telling colleagues that he “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,” he said, “the only vehicle available is the… Medicaid bill.”

There is no doubt that Rep. Hyde was motivated by his devout Catholicism while drafting the amendment, and members of the Catholic Church supported his endeavors to stop the “moral evil” of abortion. This may explain why, in 2006,  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI named Hyde, a known adulterer, a Knight of St. Gregory. This fact did not go unnoticed by the amendment’s opponents, either. When the Hyde Amendment was officially challenged in court by Cora McRae, a resident of New York and Medicaid recipient who wished to undergo an abortion during her pregnancy’s first trimester, among her claims was that the Hyde Amendment violated our Constitution’s separation of church and state.

In Harris v. McRae (1980) the Supreme Court rejected this and several other arguments against the constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment. Justice Stewart authored the majority opinion, declaring that while a woman does have a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy “it simply does not follow that a woman’s freedom of choice carries with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices.” Specifically addressing the religious element of the Hyde Amendment he wrote: “In sum, we are convinced that the fact that the funding restrictions in the Hyde Amendment may coincide with the religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church does not, without more, contravene the Establishment Clause.”

The impact on low-income women was disastrous, and remains so to this day. An estimated 42% of women who have abortions live under the federal poverty line, and the rate of unintended pregnancies among poor women is five times higher than that of higher income women. Since the rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion are greater for black and Hispanic women, the Hyde Amendment has a disproportionate impact on women of color as well. Only seventeen states have policies which allow for their own funds to cover the cost of most or all medically necessary abortions. Women who are not fortunate enough to live in one of those states often have difficulty coming up with the money to afford an abortion while still having enough left over to cover food, rent, and other expenses.

That the cost of an abortion increases with gestational age only compounds the problem, and often forces women who cannot come up with the money to simply carry the unwanted pregnancy to term. In fact, one in four women who would otherwise qualify for a Medicaid-funded abortion give birth when funding is unavailable. Since the enactment of the original Hyde Amendment, at least one million women have been denied their right to this basic,  life-saving medical procedure.

The Hyde Amendment continues to be renewed every year, even after its namesake’s demise eight years prior. And while Hyde’s carcass lays decomposing in Assumption Cemetery, his phantom presence can still be felt. Similar funding restrictions have been placed on women whose medical insurance is provided by the federal government (e.g., federal employees, military personnel, etc.), women in federal correctional facilities, and, until President Obama lifted the restriction in 2009, women who reside in the District of Columbia.

And he continues to haunt us as Republicans successfully derailed a vital anti-sex trafficking bill. The Combat Human Trafficking Act of 2015 would force pimps and johns involved in human trafficking to pay for a restitution fund for their victims. Republicans, unsurprisingly, slipped in Hyde Amendment language which would bar those same funds from being used on abortions except in the notable cases of rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother. This would make life much harder for women and girls who have been physically and sexually exploited by making them prove they were raped (or that their life is in danger) in order to have an abortion. Democrats are now refusing to vote on the bill so long as it contains an anti-abortion provision, and far right media outlets have deliriously seized upon this in order to paint them as the real villains.

To be sure, that the Democrats skimmed this anti-abortion provision without really reading it was unimaginably stupid. But the GOP’s desire to crush reproductive rights for the most marginalized women in society is far more repugnant.

One thing remains certain, though: So long as the right robs poor women of their right to choose, and continues their “death by a thousand cuts” strategy for eliminating Roe once and for all, Henry Hyde’s abominable legacy will live on.