Congress Must Stop Playing Politics with Abortion

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D) speaks during a rally supporting women's rights legislation in Albany, New York, on June 17, 2014.

This column contains a correction.

The Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress recently released an issue brief—“A Challenge to Congress”—that highlights several ways the 114th Congress could improve women’s economic security and health. Unfortunately, this Congress is off to a record start in the opposite direction, introducing bills that restrict access to health care that mainly target vulnerable women and women with low incomes. Already this session, more than 20 stand-alone bills have been introduced that would ban or greatly limit access to abortion. Currently, two critically important pieces of legislation—a bill to help victims of trafficking, known as S. 178, and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, or MACRA, known as H.R. 2—are in jeopardy due to the insertion of harmful and unnecessary abortion restrictions.

Let’s be clear: By and large, the main content of both measures would help save lives and improve the women’s circumstances. That is why inserting these abortion restrictions is particularly egregious. The abortion language now in both bills is aimed at reducing access to abortion and would have the greatest effect on low-income women. However, while it would be preferable to see the end of these abortion restrictions and of the Hyde Amendment altogether—which prevents federal funds from being used for abortion care, except in the cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother—there are important distinctions in the way the Hyde language is being applied in each bill.

MACRA includes supplemental funding for community health centers that becomes subject to the Hyde Amendment in the 2014 Cromnibus appropriations language. While it is unnecessary to include this language in MACRA, it does not permanently codify Hyde because the restrictions would end at the close of fiscal year 2017, when the funding expires. The proposed MACRA language reads:

Sec. 221 (c) APPLICATION.—Amounts appropriated pursuant to this section for fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2017 are subject to the requirements contained in Public Law 113–235 for funds for programs authorized under sections 330 through 340 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 254b-256).

Currently, the federal funds going to community health centers are already subject to Hyde Amendment restrictions—which, similar to the new restrictions, are temporary and expire along with the funding to which they apply. The danger of the inclusion of this language in MACRA is that the proposed measure is in a two-year authorizing bill instead of annual appropriations, which is typically the way the Hyde Amendment is renewed, and thus is a new tactic for Congress.

Unlike MACRA, the human trafficking bill currently under consideration in the Senate is an unprecedented use of the Hyde Amendment. This bill establishes a new fund that would be used to assist trafficking victims, including the provision of health benefits. However, these health benefits could not include abortion, which would be critical for women carrying an unwanted pregnancy as a result of being forced to work in the sex industry. The money raised for this new fund would come from fees and penalties levied against those convicted of human trafficking, instead of being funded by taxpayers. Moreover, because the bill refers to the to the Hyde Amendment in the 2014 Cromnibus and would be authorized for five years, this fund would still include the abortion restrictions even if the Hyde Amendment were overturned before the end of fiscal year 2020. Passing S. 178 with its current language would create a codified extension of the Hyde Amendment that applies to funds meant to assist trafficking victims.* The proposed language for S. 178 reads:

§ 3014. Additional special assessment (e) (3) LIMITATIONS.—Amounts in the Fund, or otherwise transferred from the Fund, shall be subject to the limitations on the use or expending of amounts described in sections 506 and 507 of division H of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113–76; 128 Stat. 409) to the same extent as if amounts in the Fund were funds appropriated under division H of such Act.

The differences in how the Hyde Amendment language is applied in each bill may appear nuanced. However, the intent of the congressional leadership to use every opportunity to try to restrict access to abortions until they are able to muster the votes to pass an all-out ban on abortion is abundantly clear. As CAP outlined in its “A Challenge to Congress” issue brief, there are several ways to improve the lives of all women in this country, particularly middle-class and low-income women. However, further restricting abortion access, no matter what the legislative vehicle, is not the way to go about it.

Donna Barry is the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at American Progress. Julia Rugg is an Intern with the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center.

* Correction, March 26, 2015: This column has been corrected to reflect that the fund for trafficking victims will sunset after five years unless it is reauthorized.