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Democrats and the History of the Hyde Amendment

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[Read: 2020 Democrats are going all in on abortion]

In the years since Hyde first passed, however, the debate about abortion in America has transformed. The abortion conversation in the 2020 race is already wildly different than it was in 1976, when both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, respectively, said they opposed abortion. While American public opinion has remained mixed on this issue, largely favoring legalized abortion with limitations, the two parties now represent the extremes of the debate. Hyde might still be with us, but gone are the days of compromise that allowed politicians to remain somewhere in the middle on abortion, signaling to voters that they respected their feelings of moral complexity.

The Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion in 1973 with its decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, stating that abortion is protected up to the point of fetal viability outside the womb and occasionally afterwards, if the mother’s health is endangered. In the years immediately following these decisions, the federal government paid for abortions through Medicaid, covering an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 procedures per year. In 1974, the year after Roe was decided, this accounted for roughly one-third of all abortions nationwide. The cost to taxpayers was between $45 and $55 million per year.

[Read: How Biden’s campaign confronted him on abortion]

Just a few years later, Hyde’s proposed ban on federal funding for abortion brought congressional business to a months-long standstill. In those years, the House of Representatives was considered more strongly anti-abortion than the Senate. In the summer months of 1976, the two chambers kept coming up short in negotiations over Hyde’s amendment to the appropriations bill that determined the budget for the Department of Labor and what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later named the Department of Health and Human Services). By September, legislators reached a compromise, moderating the original, total ban to allow funding for abortions when “the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.” President Gerald Ford vetoed the appropriations bill because it exceeded his proposed budget, but Congress overrode his decision.

In Congress’s final debates before Hyde became federal law, legislators spoke of how high the stakes felt. Bella Abzug, a prominent feminist and Democratic representative from New York who opposed the ban on abortion funding, argued that “a majority of Americans believe the abortion decision should be left up to the woman and her doctor, free from government interference. This must apply equally to poor women as well as rich women.” This was a common view among women’s-rights activists and progressive Democrats at the time, who opposed the amendment. Hyde, who did not support the bill’s expanded spending, voted to override Ford’s veto anyway, because he thought the federal-funding ban was so important: “Human life cannot be measured in terms of dollars,” he said. “My choice is as clear as it is unpleasant.”

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