Hyde Amendment and Abortion Politics


Congressman Henry Hyde served his Illinois district from 1975 until his death in 2007. Hyde was known as a conservative Republican, leading efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. It was Hyde who carried the Articles of Impeachment from the House to the U.S. Senate chamber. Henry Hyde, however, will best be remembered for his unrelenting fight to limit federal funding of abortion, accomplished through the 1976 Hyde Amendment.

Scope of the Hyde Amendment

Since 1976, Hyde Amendment language has been incorporated into every annual appropriations legislation. That language stipulated that, “…none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated under this Act, shall be expended for any abortion.” Consistently, the only exemption made by the act concerned the life of the mother. Since 1993, however, Congress added sections governing cases of rape and incest. Hyde opposed such exemptions, claiming that women would lie about their sexual histories in order to secure abortions.

The focus of the Hyde Amendment involved federal Medicaid reimbursements to the various states. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Amendment in the case Harris v McRae, maintaining that withholding reimbursement funds to states that permitted abortions under Medicaid was a legal federal prerogative.

Responding to the Roe v Wade Decision

The Hyde Amendment represented the first major legislative effort on the part of the Congress to roll back the effects of the 1973 Roe v Wade landmark Supreme Court decision that overturned state laws banning abortion. Hyde was a Roman Catholic who campaigned on a Pro Life mandate to overturn Roe and, barring that, limit the practice of abortion however possible.

The Roe decision galvanized public opinion, inaugurating abortion politics as a national debate. Groups such as the National Right to Life targeted liberal members of Congress that favored the Pro Choice stance. Abortion became the political litmus test used to elect public servants in local, state, and federal elections. Members of the judiciary upholding Roe in subsequent abortion cases were labeled as “activist judges.” Abortion politics continues in the 21st Century in American elections.

Opposition to the Hyde Amendment

The Hyde Amendment was severely criticized by women’s organizations and abortion rights groups like the National Abortion Federation. Hyde became the object of intense opposition, notably after it was disclosed that he had been involved in an extra-marital affair. In 1993, Congresswoman Cynthia A. McKinney angrily stated that the Hyde Amendment unfairly punished poor black women, during a U.S. House debate on the reauthorization of the measure.

In March 2010, Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, referred to by opponents as “Obamacare.” Health care reform, resulting from a reconciliation bill crafted in a Congressional Conference Committee, was ambiguous regarding Hyde Amendment language. In order to secure the votes necessary to pass the legislation, President Barack Obama signed an executive order (number 13535) which stated that, “The Act maintains current Hyde Amendment restrictions to the newly created health insurances exchanges.”

Attempts to Limit Abortion

Since the passage of health care reform, many states, struggling with large budget shortfalls, have assailed abortion and birth control beyond the prohibitions of the Hyde Amendment, denying state funds, for example, to Planned Parenthood. In North Carolina, the state legislature enacted a law in the spring 2011 session putting limitations on abortion practices. According to the Guttmacher Institute (August 1, 2011), 39 states currently prohibit abortions.

The Hyde Amendment, however, was the first significant attempt to limit abortion in the United States. Although exceptions were added, the language has not changed and is still in force today.