Must You Oppose Public Funding Even If You Oppose Abortion?

Even if you’re morally opposed to abortion, are you morally obligated to support the Hyde Amendment and related laws that seek to limit abortion for poor women? That’s the question at the center of the current issue of Conscience magazine, which focuses on moral and theological questions surrounding abortion access and public funding.

Both Republicans and Democrats are morally culpable for the injustices of Hyde, writes Jon O’Brien. At the time that Hyde first passed in 1976, Medicaid was paying for some 300,000 abortions for poor women annually, about one-third of all abortions. Today the Guttmacher Institute estimates that “one in four women enrolled in the Medicaid program who wants to terminate a pregnancy can’t because of the Hyde Amendment.”

However, writes O’Brien, while the amendment was the brainchild of Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, a conservative Catholic from Illinois, both Republicans and Democrats have supported it and “politicians of all stripes have consistently whiffed when it comes to repealing Hyde.”

At its inception, the Hyde Amendment was backed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who said that “there are many things in life that are not fair; that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t” when he was asked if it was just to deny abortions to poor women. His support of the amendment provided critical momentum for what had been a minority political position.

It was also backed by Vice President Al Gore, who once bragged to a constituent that during his “11 years in Congress, I have consistently opposed federal funding for abortions.” During his 2000 run for the presidency, Gore tried to downplay his previous support for Hyde while ducking questions about his current stance on the amendment, with aides suggesting he both supported Medicaid-funded abortion and the status quo.

As O’Brien notes, this two-step on abortion isn’t uncommon. Even for politicians who support abortion rights, backing Hyde is a convenient, low-risk way to “demonstrate their moderation” on the issue of abortion. And even those who say they oppose Hyde in theory have done little to overturn it in reality.

When he was campaigning for the presidency, then Sen. Barack Obama pledged he would work to end Hyde, saying “the federal government should not use its dollars to intrude on a poor woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.” But once in office, he declined to spend any political capital on Hyde and reneged on a pledge to include access to abortion in publicly funded national health insurance.

But theologian Sheila Briggs argues that allowing “for the public funding of abortion—whether you consider abortion ethically acceptable or not—is to recognize the autonomy of the secular government,” something the Catholic Church does in principle but not in practice, especially when it comes to women’s reproductive health services. As Briggs notes:

Preventing the public funding of abortion becomes a measure of and bulwark for the enduring social influence of the church. … Abortion becomes the issue on which the public moral voice of the church stands or falls. Magisterial authority becomes entwined with political survival.

Despite the Catholic hierarchy’s continued opposition to abortion, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes that “the Catholic principles of social justice should support public funding for abortion based on our faith’s belief in justice for the poor.” She says Hyde is a “fundamental injustice” to less privileged women who are “more likely to be put in a position of having an unchosen birth for which they are unable to care adequately.”

Thus, says Reuther, “Societies have a responsibility to make abortion available to all women as intrinsic to their right to control their reproduction.” Unfortunately, notes O’Brien, exactly the opposite has occurred, with “lawmakers’ failure to take a principled stand against” Hyde not only giving it continued legitimacy but creating a series of new, Hyde-related roadblocks to reproductive health care access.

[An earlier version of this post misspelled Rosemary Radford Ruether’s name as Rosemary Redford Reuther. RD regrets the error. —The Eds.]

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