(RNS) Forty years after Congress decided to deny coverage of abortion for women enrolled in Medicaid, the movement to reverse this disastrous, demeaning public policy is gaining strength.
It is grounded in the belief that every woman must be able to make the important decision about ending a pregnancy for herself, and that her right to do so can only be realized if she has the means to access care.
Today’s broad and growing coalition, called “All* Above All,” embraces the values of the pursuit of justice, respect and dignity for all human beings that are central to Judaism and should inspire Jews to join this fight.
When politicians deny access to abortion, they not only interfere in a woman’s personal decisions, they deny her moral autonomy and religious liberty. They deny her the ability to follow her own faith, her own values and her own religious beliefs when making a decision as fundamental as when and whether to become a parent. This is the premise of a current congressional proposal to end bans that deny abortion coverage, called the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act.
In a political environment where income and wealth inequality is getting renewed attention, it is important to note that overall economic well-being is not the only meaningful measure of social justice. For women, managing their fertility and controlling their bodies is critical to having power over their destinies.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade liberated women from the influence of politicians who controlled access to abortion and even to contraceptives. No sooner was the ink dry on Roe, abortion opponents in Congress acted to exclude abortion coverage for those enrolled in Medicaid.
Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois famously said that he would prevent anyone from having an abortion if he could; he settled on targeting poor women insured through Medicaid. The Hyde Amendment is named for him.
That ban was eventually extended to millions more women and families, including those who receive health care from the government as federal employees, members of the military, veterans, Peace Corps volunteers, recipients of Social Security disability payments, those who access care through the Indian Health Service, and their dependents.
The intense anti-abortion backlash to Roe has gotten worse in recent years as anti-abortion legislators have been elected to state houses as well as Congress. Almost one-third of all abortion restrictions passed since 1973 at the state level — 334 — have been enacted in the past six years. The consequences have fallen most heavily on those struggling to make ends meet, women of color, young people, immigrant women, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, and women in rural areas.
The good news is that this June the U.S. Supreme Court struck down two egregious Texas restrictions in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The language of this opinion promises to help turn back this tide in many states, but federal restrictions on abortion coverage are unaffected. Three-quarters of those seeking an abortion are poor or low-income, yet over half of those women must pay out of pocket for such care.
In recent years, draconian state laws have reduced if not eliminated abortion clinics, placing care hundreds of miles away while waiting periods force women to miss work or even sacrifice a job. Being denied health coverage drastically complicates access in these circumstances. Even a short delay can rule out medication abortion and increase the cost of care.
Recent polling shows attitudes have changed about public funding of abortion coverage. A majority of voters now support requiring Medicaid to cover all pregnancy-related care, including abortion. Fifty-five percent say a ban on abortion care interferes with a woman’s ability to make important, personal decisions based on what is best for her and her family, versus 38 percent who think the primary concern should be on “protecting the unborn.”
Passing the EACH Woman Act is key to pursuing justice. This measure would finally lift Hyde’s ban on abortion coverage in federal health programs and end political interference in the decisions of private health insurance companies about offering coverage for abortion care. In so doing, it would ensure a woman’s ability to make her own personal, faith-informed decisions about pregnancy — no matter her income, insurance or where she lives. It is time for Congress to restore every woman’s dignity and autonomy over her life, wrongly denied for 40 years.
(Nancy K. Kaufman is chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women)