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    An Enduring Consensus

    For more than 40 years, Americans have supported the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding of abortion

    by Helen M. Alvaré 1/1/2020
    U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde speaks to reporters in
    1980, after the Supreme Court ruling that
    allowed the ban on federal abortion funding to
    go into effect. AP Photo/Charles Harrity

    Regardless of political party, race, sex and even whether a person identifies as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” clear points of consensus exist in the abortion debate. Polling by the Knights of Columbus and Marist College Institute for Public Opinion has found year after year that a majority of Americans support substantial restrictions on abortion. And one strong point of agreement is that elective abortions should not be paid for by taxpayer dollars.

    The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions except in rare circumstances, has passed both houses of Congress since 1976 and secured the signatures of Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump. Numerous polls show that this bipartisan consensus persists among U.S. voters today, despite high-profile defections among presidential hopefuls.

    The Hyde Amendment first passed in 1976 as an amendment or “rider” to the federal spending law that funds Medicaid, the low-income health insurance program. According to reliable estimates, Medicaid had spent $300 million on abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision three years earlier.

    Efforts to pass a constitutional human life amendment were not succeeding, and first term Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, a longtime Knight of Columbus, concluded that one way to reduce abortion was to reduce its funding. Proposing the legislation in the House of Representatives in June 1976, he told lawmakers, “We seek to inhibit the use of federal funds to pay for and thus encourage abortion as an answer to the human and compelling problem of an unwanted child.”

    He concluded his impassioned speech with these words: “An innocent, defenseless human life, in a caring and humane society, deserves better than to be flushed down a toilet or burned in an incinerator. The promise of America is that life is not just for the privileged, the planned or the perfect.”

    The amendment passed with strong bipartisan support by a vote of 207 to 167. It was immediately challenged but eventually went into effect in 1980, after the Supreme Court confirmed that it did not violate Roe v. Wade — since Roe didn’t promise to fund the constitutional right it announced. The Court also held that the amendment did not represent an “establishment of religion,” which is forbidden by the First Amendment. Opposition to abortion corresponds to the beliefs of many religions, but it is primarily a question of human rights, not of religion.

    Because the Hyde Amendment is a “rider” to the funding bill, it requires a vote every year. Hyde shouldered the annual burden of getting his amendment passed through 2006. He retired in January 2007, after his 15th term, and died the following November at age 83.

    Over the years, bipartisan support for the amendment inspired Congress to put abortion limits into other federal health care programs beyond Medicaid, including those covering the military and federal employees.

    Despite demands by many Democratic presidential candidates today to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a majority of Americans, including many Democrats, continue to support it. A June 2019 article in the left leaning magazine Slate summarized U.S. voters’ opinions: “In every poll, a plurality of Americans opposes public funding of abortions. In every poll but one, that plurality is a majority.”

    Slate cited numerous sources, including the most recent Knights of Columbus/ Marist poll, which found that 54% opposed tax funding for abortions while only 39% support it. A 2019 Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that even among registered Democratic female voters, more support (41%) than oppose (39%) the Hyde Amendment. The article noted, “These polls aren’t close. The average gap between the pro-funding and anti-funding positions is 19 percentage points.”

    The Hyde Amendment is a reflection of — and excellent outlet for — Americans’ profound moral discomfort with abortion. Because of Roe v. Wade, citizens cannot effectively ban the abortion of unborn human lives, but thanks to Hyde, nor are they forced to pay for it. It is up to voters to hold elected officials accountable and ensure this ban on federal funding of abortion continues to be respected.

    HELEN M. ALVARÉ is professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and co-founder of the movement Women Speak for Themselves.



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