U.S.: Clinton leads way on abortion rights as Democrats seek end to decades-old rule

In January, Clinton accepted the endorsement of Planned Parenthood. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The presumptive Democratic nominee has taken a rare stand against a ban on Medicaid funds to pay for abortions – and the party platform is on her side

by Molly Redden

Tuesday 26 July 2016  22.00 BST

On a biting day in January, Hillary Clinton climbed the stage at a New Hampshire rally and accepted an endorsement from Planned Parenthood.

It was a day of unusual events. The country’s largest reproductive healthcare provider had never before made an endorsement in a presidential primary. But it was the Democratic presidential candidate who made the truly surprising announcement: a call for the repeal of the Hyde amendment, which bans the use of federal Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions.

“Any right that requires you to take extraordinary measures to access it is no right at all,” Clinton said. “And not as long as we have laws on the book like the Hyde amendment making it harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.” She supported repealing the amendment, she said the next day, “and actually I have for a very long time”.

The announcement made Clinton one of the only modern presidential candidates to oppose the nearly 40-year-old ban on federal abortion coverage. And this week, the rest of her party will follow suit. In what is the first significant shift to the party line on abortion in decades, Democrats will approve a platform at the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia that explicitly calls for elected officials to overturn Hyde.

But in a sharp departure from how abortion issues normally percolate, the loudest calls for the repeal of Hyde did not originate with groups such as Planned Parenthood or Naral Pro-Choice America – groups that have set the agenda for abortion rights supporters for decades. Instead, the calls originated with groups such as the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and SisterSong.

“Women of color leaders have been calling for the repeal of Hyde for decades when most mainstream reproductive rights groups did not prioritize this issue,” said Jessica González-Rojas, director of the National Latina Institute and an All Above All co-chair.

The result is a movement that overtly fuses one of the modern Democratic party’s most established positions – support for abortion rights – with the interests of the activists who increasingly represent the demographic future of the party.

The target is substantial. Hyde is one of the biggest barriers to abortion left standing, after the supreme court in June struck down health restrictions with no basis in evidence.

It is not a law, but a rider that has been attached to every one of Congress’ annual appropriations bills since 1976, when it was first introduced by the congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois. Today, the amendment prevents abortion coverage for some seven million women, about half of whom live below the federal poverty line. The only exceptions to the ban are when a woman’s health or life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape.

“I would argue that it’s the harshest abortion restriction still on the books today,” said Destiny Lopez, who is co-director of All Above All, a network of reproductive rights advocates that is leading the first serious push to repeal the Hyde amendment in decades.

An All Above All letter addressed to the Democratic platform drafting committee read, “Coverage bans represent a deeply entrenched injustice, where issues of economic injustice, racism, and gender inequity come together.”

Democrats’ platform first outlined a position on abortion in 1976, three years after the supreme court case Roe v Wade established a right to the procedure. Acknowledging that some Americans had “religious and ethical concerns” about abortion, the party nevertheless said it was supportive of the justices’ ruling. In 1988, without specifically mentioning abortion, the platform declared, “The right of reproductive choice should be guaranteed regardless of ability to pay.”

But for 28 years, Democratic conventions were silent on how to actually guarantee that poor women had access to abortion. In Congress, even when the party firmly controlled the legislature, Democrats continued to approach the Hyde amendment as a forgone conclusion.

“This was really the third rail of abortion politics for a long time, even for folks who supported access to abortion,” said Destiny Lopez, the co-director of All Above All. “It involved both poor women and government funding, and that made people very nervous to talk about it.”

What changed, said Lopez, was more women of color forming their own reproductive rights groups and Democrats realizing their reliance had increased on nonwhite voters, young voters and women. Such is the makeup of most of the groups All Above All has organized to oppose the Hyde amendment. “It’s not a coincidence,” said Lopez, that this year those groups are succeeding in altering the Democratic platform.

All Above All was forged out of a frustration many activists felt after politics embroiled abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act. It notched its first victory in 2015 when the California representative Barbara Lee, a longtime abortion rights supporter, led the introduction of a bill to guarantee abortion access for women on Medicaid. The bill also covered women insured by the government through the military, Peace Corps and veterans affairs.

This spring, Lee wrote the demand to repeal Hyde into the Democratic platform, as well as a call to overturn the Helms amendment. Many presidential administrations have interpreted the amendment, named for the former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, as prohibiting US foreign aid from covering abortions. (Clinton has also promised to seek the repeal of Helms.)

It is a sharp reversal from the 90s, when the Democratic platform called for “less necessary, more rare” and “safe, legal, and rare” abortions. The latter was Clinton’s stated position on abortion for years on end.

Hyde still has stalwarts within her party. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said that for the party to oppose the Hyde amendment is “crazy”.

But the most high-profile supporter within the Democratic party may be Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator Clinton selected last week as her running mate for president.

Although Kaine has a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood, he has said he opposes public funds for abortion. “I have traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment,” Kaine told the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard in July. He added he wasn’t aware of a call to repeal Hyde in the platform, “but I’ll check it out”. Neither Kaine nor the Clinton campaign has said if he now supports Clinton’s position.

Anti-abortion groups immediately denounced the Democrats’ position when a draft of the platform was released.

“The platform Democrats are expected to ratify in Philadelphia is unrecognizable compared to twenty years ago, when the party claimed to ‘respect the individual conscience of each American’ on the abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B Anthony List, an anti-abortion political action committee. “This is a gross violation of conscience rights.”

But proponents of repealing Hyde cite polls which show that public opinion is creeping in their favor.

“The pressure has been put on us by this electorate, by 18- to 30-year-olds, and women of color,” said Lee, the congresswoman. “I give them credit for insisting on it and holding us to it. It’s long overdue, but there’s finally a critical mass.”

Source: The Guardian