Funding Women of Color Advances the Right to Choose

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Radial Paper Mosaic / April Pink

Last Friday, September 30, 2016, marks forty years since the passage of the Hyde Amendment, a policy that bans the use of federal Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Over the course of its implementation, it has interfered with millions of women’s access to abortion. Currently, nearly one in six women of reproductive age is enrolled in Medicaid and—of those—approximately 60 percent live in states that restrict Medicaid coverage of abortion.

In fact, restricting access among poor people was the intended purpose of the Amendment, as Representative Henry Hyde stated during a congressional debate in 1977:

I would certainly 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.

Despite the obvious impact on women’s health, autonomy, and economic circumstance, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accepted the Hyde Amendment as the status quo for four decades. That’s beginning to change. This summer, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that explicitly calls for the Hyde Amendment’s repeal. Secretary Hillary Clinton called for its end as well, becoming one of the only modern presidential candidates to openly oppose the ban.

But let’s get the facts straight—this fight is not new. For decades, women of color have been leading grassroots organizations to demand that abortion rights are not accessible only to women with economic means. Ensuring that the voices of low-income, immigrant, and women of color are included in political decision-making in turn ensures that reproductive freedom is available to all women, especially the most vulnerable. As Jessica Gonzales-Rojas, Executive Director of NLIRH has said, “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.”

What the Ms. Foundation for Women and our grantees have known for decades is that bans on abortion coverage like the Hyde Amendment only serve to push reproductive health services out of reach for women of a specific socioeconomic status, impacting their financial stability. Low-income women, women of color, young women, and immigrant women, as well as gender-nonconforming people, bear the brunt of these bans, only perpetuating economic, gender, and racial inequalities. A recent analysis found more than half of the women denied coverage because of Hyde are women of color. The UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health ANSIRH program’s Turnaway study also found that women who sought an abortion but were denied were more likely to be living in poverty one year later.

It’s no secret that the demographics of our country are changing. According to the United States Census Bureau, people of color will be our nation’s majority by 2020. Given this shift, it is critical that our base of leadership mobilize around the issues that impact our country’s growing diversity. The Ms. Foundation for Women has been a firm believer of this since the organization’s founding in 1973. We know that those most impacted by oppressive policies such as Hyde are the ones who hold the keys to unlocking the solutions their communities need in order to thrive. Their leadership is key to achieving social, political, and economic equality throughout our country.

Hundreds of these activists—under the leadership of the All* Above All coalition—are supporting the EACH Woman Act, federal legislation introduced by a woman of color, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. This legislation would put an end to the Hyde Amendment’s obstructive policies—but federal legislation is just a start. We must continue to advocate for those speaking out against abortion restrictions at the state and local level through policy change and the erasure of stigma and harmful stereotypes.

Trusting, amplifying, and long-term investing in women of color-led grassroots organizations is fundamental to systematic change. The voices of these organizations and their leaders reflect the challenges facing their communities. Their hands-on understanding and lived experience make them the ideal advocates for the national and statewide policy change that will actually address these challenges. Whether it is speaking out on the rise of self-induced abortions or mobilizing youth to educate leaders about the need to fulfill the promise of Roe, these are the voices that are fighting every day to ensure their communities are heard.