Pro-life Politics are not Fringe or Obsolete: The Hyde/Helms Amendments

By Stephanie Pacheco

The mention of being pro-life is often met by eye-rolls, as something out of style, obsolete even, since abortion has been legal for over forty years. Even Pope Francis said in his first major papal interview that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” There is something about the pro-life movement that even the pope admits has a passe, judgmental characteristic. While there is some reason for this and also some vibrant new responses, I would like to point out that as a legal issue in America, abortion is not as settled as the forty year precedent of Roe v. Wade may suggest.

There are two quiet pieces of U.S. law that mount a stand for the lives of unborn infants by prohibiting federal funding for abortion: the Helms and Hyde Amendments. These legislative acts are protected in Congress each year by pro-life Republicans, who do not always receive obvious credit or press accolades. The Helms and Hyde Amendments are not guaranteed features of American civic society and they came under fire from the Democratic candidates during the 2016 election both from Bernie Sanders and from nominee Hillary Clinton. The fight to protect all lives is far from over, and the issue of federal funding still looms precariously.

What are the Helms/Hyde Amendments?

congressThe Helms Amendment is a 1973 addition to the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibits U.S.-funded health providers from performing abortions abroad. It states that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” It prevents American charity groups from performing abortions in other countries. Because abortion is not required, it allows many pro-life and faith-based groups to compete for government grants and to provide humanitarian services overseas.

The Hyde Amendment is its domestic counterpart, preventing federally-funded health programs, such as Medicaid from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened. The Hyde Amendment is a “rider,” not a permanent law, and is attached to the congressional budget annually. States, however, may opt to use their own funds to add abortion coverage to Medicaid. Currently, seventeen states do so. Medicaid does, of course, cover prenatal care and neonatal care for mothers and infants.

Why does that matter?

The Hyde Amendment limits abortion by making is functionally difficult and expensive. It also allows pro-life citizens, i.e. taxpayers, freedom from funding the grave procedure, which we believe equates to murder. Without Hyde, any abortion opponent would be cooperating in the funding of it, and organizations such as Catholic Charities would be far more constrained in offering services to the needy.

How is the Hyde Amendment under fire?

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, and others on the left have argued that the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions in Medicaid disproportionately harm low-income women, “forcing those already struggling to make ends meet to pay the biggest proportion of her income for safe, legal care.” What they mean is that those covered by private insurance often need not pay out-of-pocket for having an abortion. Planned Parenthood’s argument is correct in that abortion is thereby harder to come by for low-income women, but it silently assumes that abortion is the best solution for unintended pregnancy, ignoring that actual pregnancy and infant care are covered. That being said, the pro-life movement has work to do to provide more resources for struggling families and single mothers.

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton vowed to repeal the Hyde Amendment, if elected, a radical step that had never been an official part of the Democratic Party platform. In January 2016, Eesha Pandit at Alternet said, “At a campaign rally in New Hampshire last weekend, Clinton called for getting rid of the policy, calling it a law that makes it ‘harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.’” Since she is not the president-elect, it is unlikely that Hyde will be eliminated during the next administration. However, what Clinton’s proposal makes clear is that Hyde is and will be a target of progressive leaders. What is currently held territory is likely to become a battlezone in the near future.

Reform or Repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

Despite left-leaning opposition, there is still strength in the Congressional pro-life movement, as evidenced by the fact that Democratic president Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), included abortion limits in the spirit of Hyde. The ACA does not mandate abortion coverage, and states have the option to expand Medicaid coverage of abortion or to prevent abortion from being covered by any plan marketed through the healthcare exchanges. The ACA’s continuation of the Hyde Amendment functionally gives states significant leeway in how much funding they allocate to abortion, which means there is a good deal of room for pro-life activism as the states implement and respond to changes in the federal insurance laws.

It also means that there could have been vastly more abortion funding than there was. The ACA did include the contraception mandate—that all healthcare plans include contraceptives as preventive care–but not an abortion mandate.

As the ACA comes under scrutiny from the president-elect, for good reasons such as the aforementioned contraception mandate or the law’s association with ever-climbing healthcare costs, it may be repealed or revised. Accordingly, there is potential to expand respect for the nascent lives of the tiniest humans alongside respect for their older counterparts. President-elect Trump has pledged support to the pro-life cause, but has a history of flip-flopping on the issue. In 1999, he said he was “very pro-choice.” There is no reason to assume that Mr. Trump will be a friend to voters of faith and moral commitments on abortion or other issues, such as euthanasia.

Healthcare and insurance have become perhaps the central issues of domestic politics, and therefore the boxing ring of opposing anthropologies, or understandings of the human person, the place where pro-life principles touchdown and where they must be defended.

Abortion may be polarizing and difficult, but it matters and lives are saved and lost daily. Far from being obsolete or finished, life issues are hot and current. While always holding compassion for women and mothers, pro-life advocacy is far from over. It needs to be revitalized, it needs to acknowledge the Helms and Hyde protections, to fight for them and to become willing to do even more at a functional level of providing dignified alternatives to abortion that put our money where our mouth is and proclaim that children, women and families matter as much as unborn lives who will one day develop into them.

spachecoStephanie Pacheco is a freelance writer and convert from Northern Virginia. She earned a M.A. in Theological Studies, summa cum laude, from Christendom College and holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Religious Studies with a minor in Government and Political Theory. Her work has been featured in America Magazine, Crisis Magazine, Soul Gardening Journal and syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. She blogs about making sense of the Catholic Faith in modern life at and lives with her husband and two young children.
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