Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down two of Texas’ most heinous anti-abortion restrictions. The day the decision came down, I joined hundreds of women (and a few men) outside the court to celebrate. As we danced, wept and held each other close, it was especially poignant to be surrounded by so many familiar faces from the D.C. Jewish community. From the Jewish women who have been in this fight for decades to the countless 20-somethings from the local minyan scene to my childhood Jewish day school classmates, our community showed up in full force.
But what many of us might not know is that the harshest remaining abortion ban in the United States — the Hyde Amendment — will hit its 40th anniversary on Sept. 30. First passed by Congress in 1976, Hyde bans abortion coverage for individuals enrolled in Medicaid. It is explicitly designed to deny abortion access to low-income women, disproportionately harming women of color, immigrant women, young people, and transgender or gender nonconforming individuals.
For the past four decades, Congress has approved Hyde each year as part of the appropriations process. Moreover, our lawmakers have expanded Hyde-like bans to most federal health plans and programs. Today, Peace Corps volunteers; Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program enrollees; Native Americans enrolled in Indian Health Services; women held in federal prisons and detention centers; and federal employees and their dependents, among others, are also denied coverage for abortion. In fact, one of my friends didn’t realize that she is denied coverage for abortion, because she is insured through her husband’s federal health plan, which he obtains as a congressional staffer.
What is even less known is the particularly harmful impact coverage bans have on people living in Washington. As part of the ongoing attempt to expand Hyde’s reach, Congress has prohibited the District of Columbia from using our own locally raised revenue to provide abortion care to people who live here. While 17 states currently provide coverage for abortion using locally raised revenues, the District is unable to exercise the same prerogative.
This federally imposed ban endangers the health and lives of low-income women in the District, forcing them to decide between paying out-of-pocket for abortion care and paying for other crucial necessities. Women struggling to make ends meet are often compelled to delay their abortion in order to raise the necessary funds, but the later the procedure, the higher the cost.
Appallingly, the D.C. ban has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. In the District of Columbia, a full 96 percent of nonelderly Medicaid enrollees are people of color; 78 percent are black and 15 percent are Latino. This means that people of color face a structural barrier to reproductive healthcare that white people in the District do not. This is legalized discrimination. We cannot separate this shameful reality from the broader struggle for racial justice.
The status quo flies in the face of our Jewish values. Tzedek, or justice, means that my right to access abortion is no more sacred than another person’s right to access abortion. No one should ever be denied basic reproductive healthcare just because she is a poor person who happens to live in the District of Columbia.
Hyde also threatens our nation’s basic foundation of religious liberty, the very value that has allowed the Jewish community to survive and thrive in this country. The federal ban on abortion coverage enshrines one religious view into law, turning religious liberty into a privilege for those who can afford it. That’s not the America many of our grandparents sought as a refuge.
Thankfully, there is a movement to advance abortion coverage for all. This week, thousands of activists associated with the All* Above All coalition are galvanizing support for abortion coverage in communities across the country. The leaders of this effort represent the communities most impacted by coverage bans — people of color, young people, queer people and immigrants. Faith communities, including the National Council of Jewish Women where I work, are also critical members of this coalition. Just last year, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Woman Act, which would lift all federal bans that deny abortion coverage and bar local, state and federal political interference in the decisions of private health insurers to offer abortion coverage. Despite the offensive rhetoric and political maneuvering of anti-abortion lawmakers, the EACH Woman Act has already garnered more than 120 co-sponsors — an impressive feat for a new bill.
It may just be a coincidence that the High Holidays this year coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, but it is a profound one. As we gather to blow the shofar, calling us to critically reflect on the past and consider the coming year, let us recommit to the struggle for reproductive justice. Let us decry the harms of the Hyde Amendment at our holiday meals and in our synagogues. And let us redouble our efforts to chip away at the harshest remaining abortion ban on the books. After 40 years of Hyde, it’s past time for the EACH Woman Act.
Leanne Gale is the grassroots associate at the National Council of Jewish Women, where she coordinates NCJW’s Reproductive Justice Initiative and EXODUS: NCJW’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Initiative.