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The Hyde Amendment blocks federal funding of abortion. Will House Democrats repeal it?

Democrats and Republicans weren’t always divided on abortion funding. That has changed.

/ Managing Editor - February 22, 2021

House Democrats are planning to eliminate the Hyde Amendment, a provision that prohibits using federal programs like Medicaid to pay for abortions. Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) considers it one of her priorities; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled support. In response, 200 of the 211 House Republicans recently signed a letter demanding its preservation.

At first glance, these actions appear to fit a long-standing pattern in which Republicans advocate for policies to curtail abortion and contraception, while Democrats seek to broaden women’s access to reproductive health services. But this generalization masks a great deal of change in how Congress has handled abortion over time.

Here’s what you need to know about the politics of the Hyde Amendment and Democrats’ chances of abolishing it.

What exactly is the Hyde Amendment?

The Hyde Amendment is a provision in the annual congressional spending bills that fund the government. It prohibits using Medicaid money to pay for abortions except in a limited set of cases, including rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother. The amendment’s language has been incorporated into other federal health programs, including the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces. As a result, low-income individuals who are pregnant and eligible for Medicaid cannot obtain abortions through the program unless they live in one of the 16 states where state-provided Medicaid funding will cover the procedure.

The Hyde Amendment, which has been included in congressional spending measures each year since 1977, was strongly supported by previous Democratic Appropriations Committee chairs, including Rep. William Natcher (Ky.), who held the position from 1993 to 1994, and David Obey (Wis.), who held it from 1994 to 1995 and 2007 to 2010. Similarly, when President Biden served in the Senate, he supported the Hyde Amendment and other abortion limitations — and he changed his position only during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Here’s how the parties’ positions have changed

In a research article, we analyze 138 votes that the House of Representatives took on reproductive health issues from 1993 to 2018. To identify the votes, we used the voting scorecards of the National Right to Life Committee, which maintains the longest-running publicly available set of vote scores on issues related to abortion.

As you can see in the figure below, a significant contingent of Republicans, particularly Republican women, voted against bills that the National Right to Life Committee considered “pro-life” — and did so as late as the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2008.

We also find a distinctive group of Democratic men, many of them Catholics, who voted in favor of antiabortion policies. However, Democratic men who voted against abortion generally represented more conservative districts than those of Democratic women. These gender differences largely disappeared as the districts that elect Democrats became more uniformly liberal over the 25 years that we studied.

Not all types of abortion votes are alike

In general, political parties work to frame issues in ways that favor their party, influence public opinion and might persuade members of Congress to support particular stances. We found that some Republican women were especially responsive to proposals that framed reproductive issues in terms of women’s autonomy. These women defected from their party’s stance on votes related to contraception, international family planning, and allowing women in the military to use their own money to pay for abortions at overseas bases. Such proposals are also more broadly popular than votes on specific abortion procedures such as fetal heartbeat bills or banning taxpayer funding of abortion, which split the public and have strong support from Republicans.

Meanwhile, Democratic men tended to defect from their party’s stance in favor of abortion rights when bills were framed as protecting a vulnerable unborn child. These include the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which limited late-term abortions, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which added punishments for harming a fetus when committing a federal crime against someone pregnant. Discussions of the Unborn Victims bill included debates about whether its language accorded fetuses personhood rights that could undermine the right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. Congress passed both proposals into law after the Republican Party ran highly successful campaigns that moved public opinion in their favor. Indeed, “partial-birth abortion” is not a medical term but a descriptor coined by the National Right to Life Committee.

The rise of party-line votes on abortion issues

But in the past 15 years, members of each party have had far fewer ideological differences from one another. In general, Democrats have become more uniformly supportive of abortion rights, and Republicans have become more uniformly antiabortion. Even Republican women such as Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), Jackie Walorski (Ind.) and Ann Wagner (Mo.), who in the past supported such Democratic proposals as the Violence Against Women Act, are voting uniformly on party lines even on family planning issues such as allowing states to deny Title X family planning funding to groups that also provide abortions, such as Planned Parenthood.

Lockstep party voting emerged from Republican Party changes that kicked off when President Ronald Reagan brought Christian conservatives into the coalition. Republican social conservatives from the South and West were elected, while more socially moderate GOP legislators from the Northeast and Midwest retired or were defeated by Democrats. The few remaining members who began their congressional careers in the 1990s or earlier switched their positions to conform to party norms, as happened with senior Appropriations Committee member Kay Granger (R-Tex.), who has become more antiabortion, and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who has become more supportive of abortion rights.

The Hyde Amendment’s uncertain future

A more strongly pro-abortion-rights House Democratic caucus has become more willing to challenge the Hyde Amendment, all the way up to the committee and party leadership. But the parties are so polarized on abortion issues that few Republicans — even Republican women — are likely to support letting the amendment lapse by not including the restrictions in appropriations bills.

As a result, it will be very difficult for Democrats to overcome a filibuster threat in the Senate. And the few remaining antiabortion Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, could hold up passage in that chamber.

Michele L. Swers (@MicheleSwers) is a professor of American government at Georgetown University and author of “Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate” (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and “The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress” (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Kelly L. Rolfes-Haase is a PhD candidate in American government at Georgetown University.